Catonsville school marks 150 years

History: A couple gathered information from many sources to tell the story of Mount de Sales Academy.

January 18, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

The hand-painted ornithological prints that were hung around the bow-shaped Bird Room sparked Susan Randt's interest. But it was the cast-iron cemetery crosses that she and her husband, Richard, found on Mount de Sales Academy's 14-acre campus that spurred the Randts to take on the job of compiling the history of the all-girls' school.

The couple, who live in Ellicott City, spent three years doing research. They visited the academy's archives, local libraries and basements, and they contacted alumni, their families, staff and faculty.

The result of those efforts is a 300-page hardcover book - An Academy of Every Virtue: A History of Mount de Sales Academy - that was published this month as part of the Catholic school's sesquicentennial celebration.

The Randts were helped by what they called "key recorders" of Mount de Sales, including Mary Teresa McKee Waggaman, an 1866 graduate, who was an author and poet; Grace Hausmann Sherwood of Catonsville, a writer and historian; and Linda Zimmerman, a 1969 graduate and former faculty member, and her husband, Russell Schumann, who researched the school's land acquisition and architectural history.

The Randts also credit the Rev. Michael J.P. Roach, a professor of church history at Mount St. Mary's College & Seminary and a priest at St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church in Manchester, with encouraging them to compile the book. Roach, who is president of the Mount de Sales board of trustees, has been associated with the Catonsville school for several decades.

"The Randts did a pretty thorough job," Roach said. "There were also 150 photographs that were included in the book. They deserve credit for what they did."

"Genealogy becomes a compulsion," said Richard Randt, a recently retired Department of Defense employee. "My wife and I started on family genealogy in 1985, then we started on this project. It became like family here at Mount de Sales."

The couple said they have explored every nook and cranny of the four-story school building. They point out the stained-glass windows in the chapel that came from France in 1884; the Jardine pipe organ from 1885; the trompe l'oeil on the two-story-high ceiling in the music room; the glass-enclosed artifacts lining the hall outside the library; and the cross that sits atop the cupola.

The cupola, which affords a view of Baltimore harbor and once served as the school's bell tower, was marked on early navigational charts to guide sailors, said Baltimore County historian John McGrain.

The four-story Greek revival building, with its distinctive portico in the front and extensive ornamental wrought-iron porch railings in back, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school opened in September 1852 and has a rich history that the Randts are happy to recount. It was founded by Visitation nuns as a boarding school for 21 students. Today, Mount de Sales is a college preparatory school with 465 students.

The school nearly closed in 1969 after major financial problems and extensive renovations. But alumnae, parents and students conducted fund-raising events and the school remained open.

The Visitation nuns ran the school until 1979, when it was purchased and administered by a board of trustees. In 1985, the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., agreed to run the school. Six Dominican nuns administer the school; some also teach classes.

The Randts' association with the school started in 1994, when their daughter, Justine, was accepted as a freshman. In 1998, the summer after her daughter graduated, Susan Randt and members of the Parents' Club cleaned and painted the Bird Room, once known as the little girls' playroom. It was renamed for the 66 watercolor prints of birds by wildlife artist Rex Brasher hanging there. It is believed that Brasher sent the watercolors to his sister, a nun at Mount de Sales, after an exhibit of his work at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1933.

"We rescued the prints," said Susan Randt. The work on the Bird Room and the prints, which were rematted and reframed under preservation glass, was financed by the Parents' Club. The original watercolors are at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The cast-iron crosses were discovered on the school grounds after the remains of the Visitation nuns were moved from the campus cemetery to the New Cathedral Cemetery on Edmondson Avenue. Some of the crosses had hand-lettered inscriptions and others had 4-inch-by-6-inch plaques listing the names of the nuns buried there. The plaques and the crosses are stored on the academy grounds.

The school has expanded in the past decade, with enrollment nearly doubling. The expansion required turning the old convent area into classrooms and a library. In 1998, the school dedicated a new sports complex adjacent to the main building. The school is planning to construct a performing arts center.

There were only 31 stars on the American flag and Millard Fillmore was president when Mount de Sales was founded in 1852. To commemorate the founding, the Parents' Club purchased a replica of the flag. The replica now flies over the campus.

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