Sisters' memory haunts the halls of St. Stanislaus Nuns have left Fells Point convent

February 10, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez

So empty.

"Nothingness," said Sister Barbara Ann Brzeczko as she walked through three stories of vacant bedrooms and plaster statues on South Ann Street.

"There's a lost feeling here," she said. "You look at the walls and you can picture yourself coming down the steps. . . . But it's just emptiness now."

St. Stanislaus convent, busy with nuns on the Fells Point waterfront since 1925, has been still for more than a month.

It was locked up around Christmas when Sister Barbara, 55, and two of her colleagues in the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph packed up and moved out. Together with Sister Catherine Smith, 62, and Sister Juanita Zebron, 68, Sister Barbara moved only a half-mile away to Holy Rosary's convent.

But their perceived abandonment of St. Stan's convent, coming four years after the parish school closed, saddened and angered more than afew of Broadway's old-timers. They see the end to one more chapter in Baltimore's crumbling tradition of neighborhood Catholicism.

"All of a sudden they move -- they couldn't get it any better than what they had here," said Julia Zarachowicz, whose 82 years on Earth have been spent orbiting St. Stanislaus. "Ain't a thing wrong with our church. Believe me, we've got a beautiful church. VTC I hope they get some old people or something to live in that convent. It's a strong building."

Strong or not -- the roof leaks badly and water damage has ruined some plaster work -- the old convent is a big house of 23 bedrooms, large parlors, a dining hall, and a chapel identified on an archway with the painted Polish word "kapliza."

It's too big and too expensive, it seems, to be home to a trio of aging nuns, the last of a mere handful -- less than a dozen -- for all of historically Catholic East Baltimore, from St. Leo's in Little Italy to St. Casimir's around the curve of the harbor in Canton.

"We had no choice. It was financial," said Sister Barbara, who with Sister Catherine and Sister Juanita teaches 170 children from four dwindling east-side parishes at the Father Kolbe School on O'Donnell Street.

In the old days, nuns were numerous and a part of every Baltimore neighborhood in and around the harbor from Locust Point to Highlandtown. Among the larger families in each parish, it wasn't peculiar for one or more children to follow a religious vocation.

"We were an elite," said Sister Barbara.

Today, in a liberalized church grateful for the labors of almost anyone interested in helping out, lay people can do anything once done by nuns, including preparing youngsters to receive the sacraments.

As Sister Barbara moves along the bare floors and through the quiet parlors, she sees herself not as the last nun to run a convent that has sheltered hundreds of sisters since the Roaring '20s, but as a little Polish girl who found her life there.

She left her parents' home at 13 to realize that life.

"When we were little kids, it was a cloistered convent, and we were only allowed to come into the chapel," she said, remembering her childhood in the old Polish neighborhood.

"But when the sisters weren't around, we'd sneak around and look into the rooms and see what we could see. We were little kids, and we were honored to be here with the sisters, to talk with them and help them clean."

To be inspired to make the worldly sacrifices demanded of a religious vocation, a young person needs to see such a life in action, a life that young girls, Catholic or not, almost never see today.

Sister Catherine was raised in St. Stanislaus parish, fell in love with the nuns who taught every one of the eight grades there, and after she graduated from Catholic High School left home for the Franciscan Mother House in New York.

The other day she stood in a hallway of St. Stanislaus convent andpondered an old handbell, unrung for years and sitting dusty on a staircase; a bell that gave off sharp clangs which directed the nuns from wake-up to lights out.

"I was always attracted to the work of the nuns. I wanted to teach and was very edified by their example," she said. "I remember when this building was filled with nuns. They were always happy and prayerful. We were close to them when we were in school and stayed after to talk with them and walk them over here after class. . . .. The big thing was who would get to carry sister's book bag home."

Sister Juanita joined the convent after eighth grade at St. Casimir's.

"It was like a call from God," she said. "We used to stay after school and talk to the sisters, and one nun in particular was my favorite. She was calm and pleasant and explained things to you. And I read a lot about St. Francis when I was small, perhaps that brought about the desire to follow Christ."

The number of Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph -- and sisters in other orders, as well -- has been shrinking since religious vocations in the United States peaked in the 1960s, a zenith followed by years of doubt when many young nuns left the convent for the world.

"It all comes down to commitment," said Sister Catherine, who has a cousin who left the convent to get married. "Commitment is very different for people today than it was years ago. Just like in marriage, couples may say 'until death do us part,' but when something happens, they willingly change partners."

The years of second-guessing commitments while in adolescence has given way to the present when, as Sister Barbara puts it: "It's rare when you even hear of someone who has expressed an interest."

"You do feel a bit lost," said Sister Juanita.

"It's not a good feeling," said Sister Catherine. "We certainly need more nuns. It's something we're hopeful of. They keep saying things will turn around. We pray for vocations every single day."

Before she leaves to lock the door on her old house of memories, Sister Barbara is asked if a message is carried by an empty convent once filled with work and prayer and community.

"Shalom," she said.

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