The phone call from Baltimore came on a late afternoon in May, 2010. I answered from Sunyani, Ghana, where I was just finishing my seventh year of teaching at the Catholic University of Ghana.
The request was exciting: would I be willing to come back to Baltimore and take the position of interim president of the Institute of Notre Dame for one year?
Indeed I was willing! I revere IND as the flagship institution of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, although I have not been a student or teacher there. Its history is entwined with the history of Baltimore; its alumnae speak of its character-shaping influence; the surrounding community honors and protects it.
During that annus mirabilis, I learned the heart and soul of IND. Each morning, the day’s opening blessing sounded throughout the school. A final blessing came at the end of the school day — the same blessing that the congregation’s foundress gave to her students more than 200 years ago in Bavaria, Germany.
The teachers got used to me stopping in classrooms, walking the halls, sitting in the cafeteria with students. I was learning what I would share with donors and potential donors: examples of IND’s code of ethics and mode of behavior; levels of the school’s academic life, from the program for underprepared students to the Advanced Placement classes; the atmosphere of quiet spiritual strength that seemed to pour out of walls and stairways; the student rush to play or watch seasonal sports when classes ended each day; the activities of “Hildie’s Helpers,” who reached out to neighbors in need; the Catholic liturgical services that invited and received the participation of all students.
The parents of IND students amazed me. Talented fathers in the Fathers’ Club did many professional maintenance jobs, assisted at fundraisers, became the security detachment at special events, and were athletic coaches. The Mothers’ Club members brought baked treats for special occasions, chaperoned, helped at Open House, and answered every call for service. The Alumnae Association called forth many alumnae to join committees, plan events, raise money, be mentors for students and contribute their service in 100 different ways.
With a keen sense of inclusion, I participated in all the special events that a school year holds. I presented school rings to the junior class after they had been ceremoniously blessed, attended dances, marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, visited IND’s table at the Flower Mart, watched the seniors select their white graduation dress, and noted their concern that the dress style would be becoming to graduates of many sizes and shapes. In dramatic productions, I marveled at the ingenuity of the set crew, the costume crew and the director, all of whom worked within a slim budget to present a first-class production of a classic play or musical.
My heart expanded the first time I heard the school’s Select Choir sing. Diverse voices blended and soared under the direction of IND’s talented music director and composer. The choir resounded in the U.S. Capitol as it sang an original song honoring then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski. All year, the choir graced campus events with their polyphonic singing.
Athletes played indoor sports on campus, but I had wondered about IND’s outdoor sports program, a vital component of high school education. IND’s inner city location, with no playing fields, called for thoughtful creativity; administrators and students responded. I learned how IND used the city as its campus. The crew team kept its boats near the Inner Harbor, and at 6 a.m., several times a week, students practiced rowing in the harbor. The softball and lacrosse teams used city parks for practices and games. The swim team trained at a community college pool.
During that year, I saw girls who differed in race, religion, ZIP code and family background walk together as friends, hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder. Teachers who knew students by heart and met every student exactly where she was; school leaders who melded firmness with compassion in decision-making.
This year, the Institute of Notre Dame is ending its extraordinary 173-year run. All are sad to see it end. But we cheer its legacy! I raise my wine glass in a toast to the living influence of IND that will continue to be, for many, a source of joy and inspiration.
Sister Kathleen Feeley (email@example.com) was president of what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University for 21 years. Presently, she is president emerita.