Abell's table leads to a tale of a nun's lasting generosity

May 18, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

ON A SUNDAY afternoon, my mother was conversing with some old friends, smoking her trademark Lucky Strike and aiming the ashes at a glass tray as she talked. Occasionally, the cinders hit their target.

After a while, she apologized to her hosts and admired the fancy Victorian table whose polished top was receiving the worst of the dirt.

A voice from across the way said, "That was Miss Abell's table. You know, the one from Baltimore."

That would be Mary (Marie) Louise Abell, and therein lies a Baltimore biography worthy of this day, as The Sun celebrates its 160th anniversary.

Arunah S. Abell, the Rhode Island-born printer who founded this paper in 1837, achieved his niche in local history. If nothing else, there is a charitable foundation that uses his name. There's a Charles Village street named Abell and one on the west side name Arunah. A few people can tell you that the Guilford neighborhood in North Baltimore was once the summer home of this wealthy newspaper publisher. Less is recalled about his personal life and family.

In 1839 Abell took a wife, a widow named Mary Fox Campbell. Together they raised a large family. She died in 1859, while he lived on until 1888. At the time of his death at age 82, A. S. Abell was survived by three sons and five daughters.

Mary Louise was the oldest daughter. She stayed at home and looked after her widower father. She kept their very grand homes, including one with 25 rooms facing Saratoga Street, just west of Old St. Paul's Rectory.

When the city decided to extend Cathedral Street to join Liberty Street, the Abells moved out. They bought another residence in a more prominent setting than their previous address. The mansion stands to this day at the northwest corner of Charles and Madison streets. Older generations of Baltimoreans recognize it as the Park Plaza, the name of a popular gathering spot 40 years ago. Today it's known as a Donna's restaurant.

When her father died, Mary Louise Abell became one of the richest women in Baltimore. Her drawing rooms overlooked the Washington Monument and its formal gardens. Her neighbors were the Garretts, the Walterses, the Tiffanys and the Whitridges, names to be reckoned with in the social world of 19th-century Baltimore.

None of this was for her. She gave her money away, took the veil of a cloistered nun and entered a life of prayer and silence two years after her father's death. James Cardinal Gibbons was present when she spoke her vows at the Georgetown monastery of the Order of the Visitation, Jan. 3, 1891. Her family arrived from Baltimore in their own private railroad cars.

Within a few years, she started directing her wealth toward building substantial new convents for Roman Catholic women of the Visitation order -- $140,000 (a staggering sum in 1890s money) went to build a graceful stone monastery surrounded by high walls in Wilmington, Del. That done, she gave more of the fortune amassed by her father for monasteries for the same order of religious women in Toledo, Ohio, and Ottawa, Canada.

She was given the name Sister Mary Joseph. She was never elected a mother superior. One account says she was content to repair the worn vestments used by priests when saying Masses. When she died in 1922, only a small obituary appeared in The Sun.

Why build a monastery? Perhaps there's a clue in an 1881 biographical sketch of her father:

"He is not among those whom prosperity has hardened. A quiet man in everything, he follows in his large but unaffected charities the same golden rule of silence, aiming not at display or ostentation, but at the practical relief and assistance of the objects of his bounty.

"So while other men have locked up their capital in securities ... Mr. Abell has largely employed his means in the erection of warehouses, business structures and private residences, the construction of which has given employment to mechanics and laborers and has added largely to the convenience, wealth, and beauty of the city."

It was about 1978 that my mother and I sat on one side of a wooden screen that separated the Visitation nuns from their Sunday visitors. We were visiting two of my old teachers, Sisters Sulpice and Stephanie, who had taught me years before at the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation. That institution closed in 1977, and these sisters moved to Wilmington, the monastery that Mary Louise Abell built and furnished.

Several years ago, the sisters decided that their 1893 monastery was being crowded in by the city of Wilmington. They sought a new home, and found a place they liked in western Massachusetts. They sold the Wilmington property, dug up the graves of all the nuns buried there, including that of their Sr. Mary Joseph, and established themselves in a wooded valley in Tyringham, Mass. The other day I called to see how my old teachers were doing. I spoke with Sister Alice Marie, the infirmarian, who takes care of Sisters Sulpice and Stephanie. At the respective ages of 105 and 101, they are just fine, I was told.

Pub Date: 5/18/97

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