CLASSIC STATUES of women, reminiscent of ancient Greece, exude beauty, grace and strength.
Ripples of water from a small fountain soothe ears often troubled by harsh noises. The scent from aromatic healing plants perfumes the air. A cloistered courtyard - an oasis of serenity - embraces the residents of Marian House, a transitional housing and self-development program for homeless women and their Waverly neighbors.
Caryatids - four black marble sculptures of female figures - symbolically hold up the main portion of the new addition to Marian House. They stand with awesome majesty, encasing structural columns. Designed and carved by Claire McArdle, these monumental women symbolize the strength and beauty that lie within each woman who comes to Marian House at 949 Gorsuch Ave.
Just as marble, rough-hewn, sculpted and polished to a high gleam, becomes an artifact of beauty as the artist releases the image within, so each woman of Marian House responds to the "chisel" of staff members and program activities to release from within herself the woman she wishes to become.
Just as one wrong stroke - one incorrect cut - in the hewing process can ruin a piece of marble, so one harsh word, one biased judgment, one too-weighty restriction can crush a woman's newly emerging sense of self. The line between triumph and disaster is a thin one - both in sculpture and in life.
But love walks a balance.
Said one woman: "I remember stepping up to that door with my `luggage' of two plastic bags. I was terrified. And the first thing I saw was a smiling face. So I surrendered to the love I found here."
Each caryatid represents a virtue of Marian House women who complete the program for independent living: honesty, integrity, patience and trust. In her studio in Carrara, Italy, Ms. McArdle honed Bardiglio marble into four 6 1/2 -foot classic figures, with gleaming, polished hands and faces. The black marble glows with life - monuments of achievement for the city of monuments.
The original Marian House, opened in 1982, could serve 16 homeless women. Over the years, the program maintained a success rate of 75 - that is, 75 percent find homes and jobs and leave with the ability to cope with such major problems as addiction, mental illness or co-dependency in abusive relationships. There is an unending waiting list.
Sister Augusta Reilly, director, envisioned an extension that would triple the living space and add professional offices. She marshaled city, state and private forces to buy three abandoned houses next door, demolish them and build housing for an additional 14 women and four families with children.
Hope, symbolized by the caryatids and nourished by the cloister garden, inspires the community of Waverly, as the renovation of the former Eastern High School has done. The school was converted by the Johns Hopkins University into offices, laboratories and high-tech business incubator space.
It speaks of the strength of the human spirit and new life for individual women, new hope for Baltimore.
Sister Kathleen Feeley is a former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore and is now a professor of English there. She was on the board of Marian House in the 1980s, and in 1996 she founded Caroline Center, a job training center for women in East Baltimore.
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