At last, St. Frances comes home to play

High schools: In 174 years, the Catholic school in Baltimore has not had a gym of its own - until now.

January 19, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

When Sister Rita Michelle Proctor taught physical education and coached volleyball at St. Frances, she and her students hiked eight blocks to the St. James & John School hall for classes and practice.

"That hall had broken windows and no heat, and we had classes in there," Sister Proctor said. "I taught volleyball to kids wearing mittens."

St. Frances students have gotten used to being on the road for athletic activities, because in its 174-year history the Catholic high school on East Eager Street in Baltimore's Brentwood Village neighborhood had never had a gym. PE classes have been held in a variety of locations. The basketball teams practiced and played at seven different locations this winter.

As of yesterday, the Panthers are no longer on the road.

St. Frances teams now have a real home court - the St. Frances Community Center and Gymnasium.

After the gym was blessed by the Rev. Dick Lawrence, Sister Proctor, also a St. Frances graduate, took the first ceremonial shot. She hit the layup, assisted by a long line of Oblate Sisters of Providence passing the ball down court, to kick off a full slate of basketball games.

"I would have died for this," said Sister Proctor, who lives at the St. Frances convent but is now assistant principal at Cardinal Shehan Elementary School. "It's truly a miracle and a dream come true. ... God used many people to get us to this point."

The Panthers christened their gym in style last night as their basketball teams won three of four games before about 600 fans by night's end. Dawn Randall, a guard on the JV girls team, scored the first basket in competition.

No one could be happier about the new gym than athletic director Jerome Shelton, who also coaches the girls varsity basketball team.

"The best way to describe it is it feels like my first Christmas as a child," said Shelton, who has been at the school for 16 years. "This is a blessed gift. It's been a long time coming."

The entire Brentwood Village neighborhood has been abuzz about the new facility for about three years, but especially since the April groundbreaking.

"This is something for the school and for the community," said St. Frances principal Sister John Francis Schilling, "because this neighborhood has not seen a new building go up other than a prison in about 50 years."

St. Frances, with an enrollment of 298 students, lies in an inner-city neighborhood in need of more space for community service programs. The new building stands one block east of the Eager Street entrance to the Baltimore City Detention Center at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

The plan for the facility has been on the books since the early 1940s, said Sister Schilling, but the only physical change at St. Frances in nearly a century has been a major renovation during the 1970s. The last addition, a cafeteria and a chapel, came in 1907.

The $5.5 million facility totals 33,000 square feet and includes much more than the 750-seat gym.

There are locker rooms for boys and girls, space for the wrestling team to practice and storage space. The section for the community center, to be used by the school, houses three computer labs, three classrooms, multipurpose rooms and general-meeting space.

Although St. Frances students sold a lot of M&M's over the years, most of the funding came from local foundations and companies. The plan became reality in 1998 when the France-Merrick Foundation donated $1 million, said Thomas J. Nealis, director of development and academy relations.

When the community center opens, Sister Schilling said the programs will reflect the needs of the community. She envisions after-school programs, senior citizen programs, a health screening program and a job skills program.

Patrick Lee, the program coordinator for the Brentwood Village Neighborhood Initiative, agrees.

Lee might have more connections to the new facility than anyone. Not only is he a 1992 graduate who played basketball, but he lived in a row house that stood where the Eager Street parking lot is.

"I can't begin to say how much this means, not even the gym itself but the community center," Lee said. "Space is always a problem when you've got programs being run for the community, whether it's for children or for the elderly. It's a partnership with school and you see it right here."

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