School's days dwindle

St. Alphonsus: The doors of the Catholic school witnessed the ethnic march of time in downtown Baltimore.

November 04, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Decade after decade, as downtown prospered, drooped then recovered, a beloved Catholic school remained as constant an urban presence as the dogma in the Baltimore Catechism.

Then, a few weeks ago, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced it could not afford a $2 million list of daunting repairs and fire-safety upgrades required at St. Alphonsus-Basilica School, a locally esteemed relic of religious-based education on Saratoga Street. Come June, the venerable academy must close, school officials said.

Its closure, which has engendered fond reflections among alumni but angered parents used to the convenience of private education near their work downtown, will signal the latest in a string of farewells for Catholic schools in Baltimore. (The closure will leave 27 Catholic elementary schools in the city and 99 in the archdiocese, which encompasses Baltimore and nine counties, from Anne Arundel to Garrett.)

"The one thing we [Catholic educators] do well is to educate poor kids to give them a chance to become solid, middle-class citizens," said the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of downtown's St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church. "The loss of any one school diminishes the presence of Catholic education in the city, where it's desperately needed."

Located between the Charles Center's 1960s urban renewal towers and a slow-to-renovate Howard Street, St. Alphonsus School outlasted department stores, movie theaters that are now asphalt lots and now-empty office buildings.

"It was a firetrap when I was in kindergarten - and that was 1949," said Rose Lapachinsky, an alumna who lives in Southwest Baltimore. "But the school was a magical place, where you could hear the Lithuanian hymns echo off the wooden walls. It may have been old, but there was a majesty to the place. I even ate the olive-loaf sandwiches served for lunch."

Each morning, pupils pull their roller-equipped book bags up a slight hill to the front iron gate. During recess, their basketballs fly in a concrete court the size of a city back yard. Each graduation, they move on to prominent high schools - Gilman, Mount St. Joseph, Loyola, Bryn Mawr, Polytechnic Institute, Institute of Notre Dame and St. Frances Academy.

Over the decades, its doors have witnessed an ethnic march of time - first German, then Lithuanian, a sprinkling of some Asian and now mostly African-American pupils. And orders of Roman Catholic sisters - the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who began teaching there in 1846, and later the Sisters of St. Casimir - taught there. No nuns teach at the school today, and about one-third of the students are from Roman Catholic families.

With an enrollment of 202 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade pupils and an annual tuition of $2,850, St. Al's is happily filled. Working parents say they like being able to drop their children off each morning and call for them on the way home from work. The pupils don't mind all the stairs on four levels, a wheezing heating plant or 1950s-era desks that look as if they belong in a Fells Point flea mart.

Principal Daisy H. Jackson keeps order with little more than an old-fashioned, hand-held brass school bell.

"This is a fine school," said parent Carla Nixon, a Cherry Hill resident who commutes to a job with United Parcel Service in Montgomery County after dropping off her 10-year-old daughter, Ashanta. "Her teacher had what I call gravy - and you sop gravy up. She's doing so much here."

Bridgid Burke, a West Baltimore resident who graduated in 1983, said the school offered plenty of common-sense lessons in city living. "It was just good to know about the city - to know what to look out for - and to be in a beautiful old building. The school was unique in that it brought a bunch of backgrounds and cultures together. I even enjoyed the fire drills."

But all the aged electrical wiring, rickety windows, old bathrooms and twisting staircases have tormented school officials who oversee upkeep on a building constructed immediately after the Clay Street Fire of 1873, a fast-spreading blaze that nearly destroyed downtown Baltimore and claimed the old school and convent on the site.

What rose was a 27,000-square-foot church hall (Halle in the German lettering on the school's Gothic Saratoga Street facade) and classrooms, a bowling alley in the basement and nuns' quarters under the roof. There's an attic, too, with dormer windows and lots of stairs. Classrooms are located on three floors, and a second-floor auditorium doubles as a parish hall. The small play yard is down a flight of steps in the rear.

"My worst fear is an event that doesn't allow us to get everybody out," said Louis F. Baird, who oversees the physical condition of the archdiocese's 1,000 buildings - including dozens of school buildings from Westernport in Allegany County to Aberdeen in Harford County. "Our first priority is safety. Narrow corridors and stairwells lend to confusion and disorientation."

School closings are never popular, and this one has drawn criticism.

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