Hopes for recreation center bear fruit -- after 60 years

St. Frances nears funding goal for annex

May 02, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

It could be a lesson pulled from the simple wisdom of Sister John Francis Schilling, principal of St. Frances Academy, in the heart of one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods: Patience is a virtue. Persistence pays. Providence exists even here, in the shadow of a prison.

More than six decades after the first plans were drawn up to add a recreation center to the cramped 172-year-old academy, the school's long-held wish to build the annex is within reach, boosted by a multi-million-dollar fund-raising campaign.

"It's the history of our school that we have to wait for things; nothing comes easy for us and never has," said Schilling, a member of the predominantly black Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation's first order of African-American nuns, which established the school to serve black students during slavery.

"Maybe waiting for this to happen was a sign."

In its most ambitious fund-raising drive, St. Frances has raised about $4.5 million in the last two years, said Tom Nealis, development director at the school, at 501 E. Chase St., a block away from the Maryland State Penitentiary. Nealis said $1.2 million was received from state grants, but money also has poured in from local foundations, and an anonymous individual recently gave $700,000.

Once the campaign adds $1.5 million to the school's coffers, which it hopes to do in the fall, ground will be broken for the recreation and community center: a 35,000-square-foot classically styled structure surrounded by landscaped grounds and a new parking lot. The architectural firm behind the project, Gaudreau Inc., is one of the city's oldest. Gaudreau has worked with the school for generations, and devised the initial plans for the recreation center in 1938.

Schilling added that the rest of the money raised by the fund drive will endow scholarships and raise teacher salaries, the latter of which start at under $20,000.

That the school is well on its way to reaching its funding goal is testament to the renewed vigor Catholic schools are experiencing in Baltimore, Nealis said. In recent years, some of the diocese's 19 inner-city schools, most of them elementaries, faced extinction because attendance had declined as white residents fled to the suburbs.

Partly because they are adept at successfully educating youth from distressed areas, and partly because the local archdiocese has reached out to Baltimore's business community to support scholarships for poor students, the area's urban Catholic schools are fully enrolled and gaining the attention and loyalty of foundations and corporations.

"It seems the foundation community and certain individuals have definitely been more aware of our school," said Nealis, who pointed out that many campaign donors are attracted to the school's focus on -- and success with -- helping at-risk youth. In the last 14 years, 90 percent of St. Frances graduates -- teens who hail from some of Baltimore's most treacherous streets -- have enrolled in college, and about 80 percent have graduated, Nealis said.

The center, to be attached to the school and built on a vacant, overgrown lot that doubles as an impromptu neighborhood parking area, will provide the school's first recreation facility and add classroom space. St. Frances' basketball teams, which recently have been hugely successful despite having to practice and play games at a gym off campus, will have a home of their own.

Perhaps as important, Schilling said, space will be made available for Brentwood Village residents, community meetings, classes, and events that require a large venue.

"This neighborhood needs real signs of hope, something people can touch," said Patrick Lee, a Brentwood Village Community organizer and St. Frances graduate, as he walked through the desolate community surrounding the school on a recent day. "This will give that. We've been waiting on something like this for a long time."

To contribute to The Promise of St. Frances fund, call 410-539-7030.

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