School without a neighborhood succeeds St. Alphonsus of the City

March 26, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

The sweet, silver voices of Sister Bernadette Gregorek's third-graders making the Stations of the Cross swirl into the vaulting arches of St. Alphonsus church and echo in the heart as half-remembered prayers.

Their heads barely bob above the pews as they sing an English version of the "Stabat Mater," a very old liturgical poem:

At the Cross, her station keeping

Stood the mournful mother weeping . . .

These 12 children in bright patchwork parkas and gray flannel sweat suits are from the St. Alphonsus-Basilica school, at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue. They chant a final "Our Father," then scamper across Saratoga Street to a salmon-colored brick building with the bright gold words "St. Alphonsus Halle" high overhead.

St. Alphonsus has carved out a unique niche in the city's parochial school system. Here's a Catholic elementary school that thrives essentially without its own neighborhood parish. It's the downtown school, the most inner-city of inner-city parochial schools, and it draws students from all over Baltimore, and from the suburbs, too. St. Alphonsus flourishes in the very heart of the city because it serves a need for people coming into town.

"We're pretty much a commuter school," says Kirk P. Gaddy, the dynamic young principal who's just rounding out his first year at St. Alphonsus. Parents who work downtown bring their children with them to St. Alphonsus.

Mr. Gaddy says he's got students from almost every Baltimore ZIP code, from Baltimore County and even Harford, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.

"We have a lot of folks who work at Mercy Hospital," he says, "at Social Security Administration, the Mayor's Office, the Police Department, University of Maryland schools, even the small downtown shops."

They drop their children off for before-school care at 7 a.m., the official opening time, or even earlier, and pick them up at 5:30 p.m., or later, when after-care has ended.

Parents want the disciplined, structured, quality education St. Alphonsus offers their children, Mr. Gaddy says. "And I guarantee they will learn," he says. "I have a committed faculty here, and my faculty knows that their job is about learning, to make sure our children learn. And our children will learn."

Among the 6- and 7-year-olds in Jeneice Linton's first-grade class, the consensus is that St. Alphonsus is "fun." The kids like practically everything about St. Al's.

Tiana Deshields, who is 6 and not at all abashed about sitting alone because she was talking, pretty much summed up the attitude of her class: "I like the school. I like my teacher. And I like doing spelling. I like doing phonics. I like my teacher because my teacher is lovely and she's wonderful."

Ms. Linton has, in fact, become better-known around the school as "Lovely" than as Jeneice. A nominee for the Teacher of the Year Award in the archdiocese, she is universally regarded as an exceptional teacher.

"I like Miss Lovely Linton because we learn a lot of things," says Sierra Coppage, who is 6 and wears her hair in two splendid braids and can spell her name with dispatch for a visiting reporter.

Parents seem as dedicated to St. Alphonsus as their children. Georgeann Loudermilk used to bring her daughter Kelly Sean all the way in from Dundalk on the No. 10 bus to St. Alphonsus, a daily trek that could take almost an hour.

"I dropped her off and went on to work," says Ms. Loudermilk, an investigations clerk for the Social Security Administration at Metro Plaza.

She's since moved downtown, only four blocks from St. Alphonsus. Kelly has been in school three years. And Ms. Loudermilk is head of the St. Alphonsus PTA.

Looking for nuns

Ms. Loudermilk, who's 38, was born and raised Catholic at St. Clement's in Rosedale. She brought Kelly to kindergarten at St. Alphonsus because she wanted her to have Catholic schooling, too.

"Once I got her here I found out Catholic schools were really different now," she says. "I was looking for nuns."

She had vivid memories of those formidable religious ladies in black habits from St. Clement's.

Of the 15 teachers at St. Alphonsus, three are nuns, including, of course, Sister Bernadette. Which is a fairly high number. In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, about one teacher in nine is a "religious."

But only Sister Margarita Musquera, who teaches Spanish, wears a habit anything like the nuns of Ms. Loudermilk's school days. Sister Margarita, an Oblate Sister of Providence, wears a simple but well-tailored black suit with a high-necked blouse and an abbreviated veil.

Mr. Gaddy has a young faculty. He's just 30. But at 60 the Cuban-born Sister Margarita is easily one of the most youthful. She's a very animated teacher, who teaches Spanish with a rumba beat.

Sister Bernadette, a Sister of Mercy, wore a parka and a modest skirt and blouse to lead her class along the Way of the Cross, the 14 stations that symbolize the path of Jesus through the old city of Jerusalem to Calvary.

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