Still committed to tradition, city Anniversary: The Institute of Notre Dame celebrates its 150th year in Baltimore, where it has stayed despite riots and other schools' flight to suburbs.

November 09, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Nancy K. Barry remembers a nun at the Institute of Notre Dame who considered the school's fifth floor her social studies laboratory. From the perch high above Aisquith Street, she would show her students city life.

"You see the penitentiary, you see Fells Point, you see commerce, you see government. You see Baltimore all of it," recalled Barry, a 1973 graduate of the Catholic girls' high school that this year celebrates its 150th anniversary in the spot where it began.

Today, alumnae will gather for the school's annual homecoming, a day after a ceremony marking the dedication of a new grotto on the school's grounds.

Despite fires and riots and dramatic social changes over the years, IND has committed itself to the city, while other schools moved to the suburbs.

Though it has had lean years, the rambling school just east of downtown flourishes, expanding on roots planted by a small band of Bavarian nuns who took in two orphans "for housing, care and education" 1847.

Its 446 students come from throughout the metropolitan area, and it boasts more than 6,500 living alumnae, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and California Congresswoman Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi.

School loyalists say the neighborhood -- though marked by the bleak yards and stoops of Latrobe Homes -- is being revitalized and has given as much to the school as IND has to its neighbors.

"Because the school is in the city, it creates the opportunity for students to recognize that they are part of a bigger place," said Barry, an associate professor of English at Luther College in Iowa and author of a book on IND to be published in April.

"In the spring, we would open the windows, and you'd look out and you would be aware that there were people in the city who had less than you had. That was for me a moral watershed."

Said Cathy Jo Wilkens Portera, Class of '69, mother of an IND graduate and president of the alumnae association: "I never once felt afraid. I still don't."

With its formal parlors, wide staircases and stained-glass windows, IND harks back to another time, when the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSNDs) in rustling habits filled the halls and IND girls didn't sit on the streetcars for fear of mussing the pleats in their starched summer uniforms.

Led by Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, the SSNDs -- German immigrants who first came to Pennsylvania -- stayed in borrowed quarters in Baltimore. They taught in parish schools before buying a house around the corner from the current school and taking in girls.

In the mid-1800s, the order built a convent school on the same Aisquith site. That building grew, accommodating the school and the SSNDs' motherhouse until the 1950s, when the motherhouse moved to North Charles Street.

In the 1970s, IND considered moving the school to Ruxton, but "we believed that we already had a presence in Baltimore County at Notre Dame Preparatory" in Towson, explained IND's principal, Sister Mary Fitzgerald.

Other arguments were made, she recalled: "One of the neighbors said, 'Please don't leave the area. You are the only sign of hope our children see.' "

Portera and Diana Franz, Class of '70, remember being at IND in 1968, when riots erupted after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "From the fifth floor, you could look out and see smoke and fire," Franz recalled.

Nearby businesses were looted and burned. But, IND was untouched. Perhaps it was because National Guard troops were housed at the school. Or perhaps, Barry suggests, it was the notation neighbors had scrawled on the exterior walls: "Soul Sisters."

"The fact that IND made a commitment [to the city] actually took a lot of guts," said Michael Seipp, executive director of the Historic East Baltimore Action Coalition and a new member of the school's board of trustees.

Only a few neighborhood girls attend IND now, because most cannot afford the $4,600 tuition, Sister Mary said.

Establishing an endowment to provide scholarships for East Baltimore girls and more financial aid to families everywhere is among the school's challenges, she said.

For all its traditions, IND also is "trying to be as contemporary as possible," she said, citing new chemistry and biology labs, expanding technology and an updated curriculum.

But she admitted that "because we are so steeped in tradition, sometimes we have trouble letting go when we need to move forward." Such was the case with the gymnasium and the grotto.

To make room for a gym in 1992, the school tore down a gazebo and a grotto -- a large shrine to the Blessed Mother -- behind the main building. The alumnae weren't happy.

"We realized there was one sore spot among all the alumnae," said Sister Mary. "They just felt so badly that they had lost the grotto."

The school has built a new grotto in a courtyard facing Aisquith Street, with remnants of the old grotto preserved in the adjacent meditation area.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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