At St. Peter Claver, a beacon is darkened Franciscan nuns bid farewell to church after 108 years

June 01, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Sister Rose Bernadette Fitzsimons, a Franciscan nun, said goodbye this weekend during a farewell Mass to the parishioners of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church. With her departure comes the end of the 108-year tenure of the Franciscan Sisters at the historically African-American West Baltimore parish.

"It's difficult, to be the last person to put the key in the door of the convent, with no one else to follow," said Sister Rose, 56, who has been working as assistant principal in the school and as a pastoral associate in the parish. "But hopefully, greater things will follow, with time."

Sister Rose, who has served two stints at the parish totaling 22 years, felt for some time that she needed to move on. For two years, she put notices in her order's newsletter, asking for sisters to come to St. Peter Claver, in the 1500 block of Fremont Ave. in Sandtown-Winchester. "And nobody responded," she said. "It's numbers, really. We don't have the numbers anymore."

So, as has happened so often in churches with a shortage of priests and nuns, it is up to the laity of St. Peter's to take over the ministry.

"This is the time for the people to recognize their gifts and use them for the ongoing growth and faith of the church," Sister Rose said.

St. Peter Claver Church was founded in September 1888 to minister to West Baltimore's growing African-American population, as St. Francis Xavier Church did in East Baltimore. Two years later, three sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, commonly known as the Glen Riddle Franciscans (for the town outside Philadelphia where their mother house is located) -- Sister Mary Honoria, Sister Mary Claudia and Sister Mary Cyrilla -- came south to start St. Peter Claver School.

They left behind a journal, written by each succeeding superior of the house, that chronicles life in the school and in the Franciscan convent.

The first years were a struggle.

"The Mission was very poor at first," the journal recounts. "[The Rev. Lambert Welbers, the pastor] did the best he could for the sisters, but frequently they would have been in need of the bare necessities if good Sister Zita of St. Joseph's Hospital [then in East Baltimore, now in Towson] had not looked out for them.

"Her sisters called twice a week on market days and left bread, vegetables and meat. This continued for some time. A baker named Hild on Pennsylvania Avenue used to supply the sisters with bread. After his death his wife and daughter continued to do so."

The sisters found they had their hands full with the students.

"At first the sisters taught in the basement of the church," the journal says. "Over 200 pupils were enrolled the first month, the greater number having come from the different public schools in the neighborhood. They were then very unruly.

"The pastor took great interest in the school and generally was on hand to help the sisters manage the unruly before the year had elapsed the children became docile and attentive."

Over the years, enrollment at the school steadily increased. In 1899, there were 220 students, taught by four Glen Riddle Franciscans. Enrollment increased to 333 students by December By 1915, it had risen to more than 400 students and peaked at more than 600 during the Great Depression.

The sisters' journal reflected the rhythm of the school year, with recountings of September openings, Masses, holidays and graduations. But there is also the occasional tragedy that disrupted life.

"Our school is closed for an indefinite period owing to Spanish Influenza, which is making great havoc throughout the city and country," says an entry from Oct. 9, 1918. "Sister Gendolpha is sick suffering from a slight attack of the flu. No Mass on Sunday by order of the health authorities."

Later, the journal says "Our school opened Nov. 4. The community lost eight sisters and a candidate during the epidemic."

The journal also reflects the history of race relations in Baltimore. "During November the children were assiduous in their efforts to obtain subscriptions for the 'Catholic Review,' " one of the sisters writes in 1945. "For the first time in the history of Baltimore, a Negro child reached the goal of recognition and received the honor of being invited to the Archbishop's banquet and having his picture taken with the Archbishop and the white children who were highest on the list."

Much has changed since the heyday of the school in the 1940s and '50s. Many families moved out of the inner city and the population of the school dropped steadily, until there were only 182 students by 1972. The next year, the school was combined with nearby St. Edward's parish school to form the Father Charles A. Hall Cluster.

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