Just beyond the clutter of U.S. 40 west is a secret garden and an enchanting little open-air house, an eight-sided summer gazebo that looks as if it belonged on a Victorian estate.
The gazebo, the haunt of Mount de Sales Academy students for the past 138 years, is about to be restored. Its tin roof is now rusting and its wooden structure could stand some strengthening. A fresh coat of paint wouldn't hurt.
The restoration of the gazebo is the work of the Catonsville Garden Club, whose members have adopted the groundskeeping chores at this venerable and esteemed Baltimore County high school at 700 Academy Road in Catonsville.
Mount de Sales, a private, Roman Catholic all-girl high school, has been Catonsville's little secret for decades. It's always been small -- the current enrollment of 220 is considered high -- and has never made any waves on the local academic scene. It was founded by the nuns of the Order of the Visitation, who themselves were strictly cloistered and never left the place.
The large school building sits on a high ridge overlooking Academy Heights, the residential neighborhood that drew its name from the school. This proud, tall brick building is plainly visible from the Baltimore Beltway at Edmondson Avenue; its cupola can be spotted from many points. The side of the building where the garden is located features iron balconies right out of the Old South of Atlanta or Charleston.
Several days a week, a small band of garden club volunteers meets at the academy to continue a tradition that stretches back to the early days of the school when many of the nuns had small garden plots.
At that time, Mount de Sales had about 100 acres. There were 75 boarding students and 75 nuns. The property included the imposing school building with its chapel and monastery wing, separate stables, root cellar, cemetery, ice house, infirmary, smoke house, laundry building, gate house and chauffeur's residence.
The grounds were decorated with marble religious statues and cast-iron ornaments and featured paths for walking and carriages.
"The sisters invited us here in the fall of 1985. We began the next spring getting the gardens in shape, moving plants and getting the place in order," said garden club member Lucy Merrill.
The club was recently received a $1,300 grant from the Baltimore County Historical Trust Inc. to restore the gazebo, thought to be the oldest of its type in the county. Catonsville's John S. Wilson & Co., a building materials firm, also donated to the project.
"We'd like to get the garden and pavilion to the point where it could be rented for social events," Merrill said. Indeed, it already looks like a bride's idea of a romantic locale for a wedding reception.
Mount de Sales Academy seems to be beating the odds stacked heavily against a small, private school that was founded to educate Southern young ladies.
When the nuns of the Order of the Visitation ceased teaching and living here in 1979, the school was kept in operation by an independent board of trustees. A few years later, the Dominican Sisters stepped in to run the place. They now have a convent in the old Academy Road gatehouse at the eastern edge of the property.
The grounds and gardens at Mount de Sales clearly recall an TC earlier, more relaxed day. On a fine fall afternoon this month, some of the 220 girls played ball on the front lawn while waiting for parents to fetch them home.
The school has long been known for its pleasantries and the gazebo was one of them, recalled a former student who attended Mount de Sales in the 1960s. The gazebo was a place for talk and gossip, perhaps a furtive cigarette or a chance to wear forbidden makeup.
In the spring, it was all azaleas and lilacs. "We felt privileged to have the place," a former student said.