St. Frances Academy finally getting a gym

Groundbreaking held for $5 million center

April 28, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

East Baltimore's tiny St. Frances Academy has won Catholic League basketball titles without a gym to practice in. Now, it will get one.

Yesterday, officials broke ground for a recreation center that the school at 501 E. Chase St. has waited more than six decades to see built. It should be completed by January.

In the heart of one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods, hundreds attended the school's flag-raising ceremony yesterday for a 31,500-square-foot brick center that will have a computer laboratory, meeting rooms, a kitchen and the school's first gymnasium.

Despite not having a gym, the school's boys and girls basketball teams have been hugely successful. In 1995, the boys and girls teams won Catholic League tournament championships on the same day.

Despite not having a green to putt on, the school fields a golf team.

St. Frances, which focuses on turning around the lives of inner-city youths, will make the recreation center available to the neighboring Brentwood Village, where children play on roofs and in vacant houses because the area lacks playgrounds.

The two-story, $5 million structure, to be built by Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, will be surrounded by landscaped grounds and a new parking lot. A prison stands a block away.

Gaudreau Inc., the architect behind the project, 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. Until now, the school never had the funds to build the center.

About $1.2 million of the funding for the recreation center will come from the state. The rest will come from the Abell Foundation and other donors.

St. Frances is a college preparatory school established in 1828 by Sister Elizabeth Lange, who escaped to Baltimore from Haiti. The next year, the nun and three other women founded Oblate Sisters of Providence, which has run the school since then.

At yesterday's ceremony, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend spoke of how impressed she was that 95 percent of St. Frances graduates go to college. She told the crowd that in 1966, her father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, visited Catonsville's Mount Providence Junior College, which was also run by Oblate Sisters of Providence, and received an award for his commitment to education. The college closed in 1974.

"This is an extraordinary day for so many reasons," Townsend said. "My father said too often, the school, the college or the university seem, to the poor, remote and inaccessible."

St. Frances has 275 students and a waiting list of 40. Tuition is $3,900 a year, but many rely on grants and scholarships.

"We are here to celebrate this building, yes, but this is more than a building," said Sister Reginald Gerdes. "This represents a dream and a hope of so many before us."

Master of ceremonies Len Elmore, former pro basketball player and All-America center at the University of Maryland, did not attend St. Frances but is an honorary alumnus. "The mission is glorious but not glamorous, vital but not complicated," Elmore said. "The school addresses the academic and emotional and spiritual needs of its students."

Sister John Francis Schilling, president and principal, said she and the students have been waiting for the recreation center, especially the gym, for years.

"I hope the building will be ready by January so we can have that home-team advantage," she said. "We'll have the prisoners banging on the walls for us. I bet the refs will treat us differently after that."

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