In new life, home revives old role of serving needy

The Baltimore Sun

The Victorian mansion's white marble steps sparkle outside a front door that has welcomed guests to a prosperous cabinetmaker's residence, then a convent, orphanage and special-needs school. This Charles Village-area landmark has been reinvented - this time as a residence for 22 homeless women.

Called the Margaret Jenkins House, it is the work of the Women's Housing Coalition and Homes For America, two nonprofit organizations whose officials restored and renovated the property during the past 11 months.

"I took one look at this building and said, 'Now this is perfect,' " said Trudy McFall, chairwoman of Annapolis-based Homes For America. "It's a beautiful, beautiful building, lovely even down to its woodwork."

It took $3.2 million to renovate the former Franciscan Sisters convent, established in 1890s for a group of English nuns. They had come to Baltimore in 1881 to work with the orphaned African-American children whom some other Roman Catholic orders would not assist.

The Jenkins House began its life about 1875 as the home of Philip Hanson Hiss, a cabinetmaker and decorator who embellished his residence with extra-fancy mantelpieces and window surrounds, now polished for continued use in the home. Period furnishings - including oversized tables - also survive. Wooden staircases remain, and there is at least one surviving gaslight fixture in a paneled first-floor powder room.

When philanthropist Margaret Anne Austin Jenkins bought the property in 1889, nearby homeowners complained to a newspaper reporter that a "Negro asylum" was being established among the homes of the grandees in what were then the North Baltimore suburbs.

Cardinal James Gibbons made a few visits to quiet opposition. The sisters also had a wall built around the home's garden and later filled much of the site with a chapel and expanded quarters.

The sisters established their orphanage for girls, taking in children whose parents couldn't care for them and babies left at the doorstep. On one occasion, the sisters received a call that a baby had been abandoned under a pile of leaves in Druid Hill Park. Another time, they took in a little girl expelled from an all-white Roman Catholic orphanage who was suspected of having some black blood.

The sisters set up dormitories and classrooms for the girls housed here.

"It's not something you let go easily," said Sister Ellen Carr, a member of the order, which sold the building for about $500,000. "You want to entrust it to those who have the same love the sisters have."

(The adjoining Franciscan Center, a social services outreach agency, stands at the property's west side and remains in operation.)

The sisters closed the orphanage about 60 years ago. They initially opened a day nursery for black children. When they discovered that little schooling was available for mentally retarded children, they rethought their mission and opened St. Francis School for Special Education. The school remains in operation under the name St. Elizabeth's School on Argonne Drive, near where the remaining Franciscan Sisters live.

"We kept on saying, 'What's the next need?' " Sister Ellen said of her order, whose members she described as "older and fewer."

In September 2004, Joann Levy, who directs the Women's Housing Coalition, first saw the old convent.

"I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew it was right. It was the right building for the WHC. I don't think I closed my mouth for the first time I walked through it," Levy said.

Levy's Women's Housing Coalition operates the Bennett House and the Susanna Wesley House in Mount Vernon and the Calverton in Charles Village.

The women moved into Jenkins House in late October. The house has 22 furnished residential units, each with its own bathroom, and a shared kitchen for every two units. The former chapel is now a television room.

Levy said the residents, whom she calls "our ladies," are "formerly homeless and grappling with getting back to self-sufficiency." She said about two-thirds of them are in recovery from alcoholism or other addictions.

"Everyone has a diagnosed disability - physical or emotional or a combination of them," Levy said.

The residents get computer training in the home's former kitchen. Classes are conducted under an old-fashioned tin ceiling in a room whose walls are covered with glazed tiles.

The Jenkins House renovation was assisted by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the city, Enterprise Community Investment and the Abell Foundation. Renovation and construction costs were augmented by low-income and historic rehabilitation tax credits.

"I kept going through the building, saying, 'Isn't this beautiful.' It was wonderful to see spaces transformed into homes to so many people," said Sister Ellen. "The original beauty was brought forth to serve people again, in a new way, in a way so consistent with the mission of our community."

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