Nun creates haven that gives hope, a place to feel safe

April 04, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

In a Southeast Baltimore rowhouse, Sister Barbara Ann English runs a haven for adults learning to read, young parents coping with poverty and neglected children who need a quiet place to do their homework.

The hungry, the undereducated, the unemployed come to Julie Community Center, where she greets them as family.

"I love this neighborhood," says "Sister Bobby," as she is known throughout Upper Fells Point, Butchers Hill and Washington Hill.

"It's full of diversity. The houses aren't alike. The people aren't alike.

"This is reality. The need here is so great it calls to you. But what makes the dynamic so good in Southeast Baltimore is that people want to work together."

Sister Bobby, a nun with the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur, has run the Julie center for nine years.

The center, at the corner of East Lombard and South Washington streets, was opened by her order in 1975 as a nonprofit organization to help the poor. It serves an area of 16,000 people bounded by Monument Street to the north, Eastern Avenue to the south, Patterson Park Avenue to the east and Broadway to the west.

Sister Bobby runs more than a half-dozen programs on an annual budget of $60,000 -- most of it from private donations.

She works 12-hour days running the center. She's 60, looks 50 and has the energy of a 30-year-old.

One recent morning, she was on her hands and knees, vacuuming the center's stairway. Later, she served her staff a healthful, low-fat lunch that she cooked herself. She also drives troubled youths to court, helps them stay away from drug corners and counsels their parents.

Her work has spilled beyond the center, into activities throughout Southeast Baltimore.

For instance, Sister Bobby has joined neighborhood leaders to protect the working-class community from encroaching waterfront development. She played a key role in crafting the Southeast Community Plan, an ambitious blueprint for jobs, affordable housing and education programs in 67 Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods.

And she rallied neighborhood residents to close three bars where prostitutes and drug dealers prospered.

"She's the social conscience of the neighborhood," says City Councilman John Cain, a 1st District Democrat.

"In addition to this incredible love that she has for everybody, I don't think I've ever seen her mad. She's able to keep her composure and think through a tense situation and come to a solution that all sides can agree on."

"She encourages people to rise to their potential," says Carolyn Boitnott, co-chairwoman of the Southeast Planning Council with Sister Bobby.

Sister Bobby was a 17-year-old Pennsylvania girl when she became a nun.

"As a kid in grade school, I knew I was going to be a nun. I was always very attached to the church. I was always fascinated with education and community," she recalls.

For 12 years, she taught fourth to eighth grades up and down the East Coast.

In 1966, she went to work in Brazil, where she helped poor farmers fight property owners who had confiscated farmland.

In 1985, she returned to the United States to care for her ailing mother, and took the job running Julie center.

She carries her memories of Brazil symbolically around her neck -- a small bronze Notre Dame cross nestles in the nutshell of a tropical Brazilian tree. But, she says, the needs of the people she serves here are just as great as those in Brazil.

Her main concern: making a future for the children.

"I see children whose future is in doubt because you're not sure -- even if you stay in school -- if you're ever going to get a job, not sure you're going to even live because of the drug deals on the corner."

Many of the programs at Julie center are geared toward the neighborhood's youth and families.

Audrey Williams teaches young parents how to discipline their children without striking them. Arlene Zapata helps Spanish-speaking immigrants find jobs and navigate the maze of immigration paperwork. And Pearl Jakowski and Wanita Hileman run the Peoples' Rights Office -- the center's oldest program -- helping needy people with unpaid utility bills, and counseling families wounded by drug and alcohol abuse.

Meanwhile, Lisa Ingram comes twice a week from the Baltimore Adolescent Treatment Program at Francis Scott Key Medical Center to tutor children and steer them away from drugs. On a skimpy budget augmented by Julie center, she offers snacks and crafts for the children.

"The best thing we do is provide a safe place for them to come," Ms. Ingram says, referring to some children, whose parents are drug addicts.

In the afternoons, when the children arrive after school, Sister Bobby seems more animated than usual. She kisses and hugs each arrival. The house vibrates from the children shouting and clowning.

She introduces a visitor to each child, describing the youngsters' strengths. One is good with computers and another has a talent for teaching sports to younger children.

Her philosophy, she says, is to know firsthand everything that goes on at the center.

"You don't know your house until you've checked it out," she says.

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