School is `a gift from God'

Academy: A small Catholic church looking to spread its faith and an independent school hoping to revive enrollment in a new location seem to be the perfect match.

April 27, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For more than a decade, Holy Cross Academy had been a small, independent school in Northeast Baltimore -- first renting its facilities from a local senior citizens home in the Walther Boulevard area and then moving to St. Matthew's United Church of Christ in Mayfield.

Today, the academy is in transition, thanks to uncanny timing and circumstance that led Holy Cross to relocate to Harford County, where for years a small Catholic parish has been hoping for a school of its own.

In September, Holy Cross Academy will open its doors on Mountain Road in Joppa, as part of a venture with St. Mary of the Assumption Church. Faculty and community members say the school's move to Harford County will fill a need for another Catholic school in the area. According to St. Mary's Very Rev. Ivan Dorlic, known simply as Father Dorlic, it is nothing short of "the work of God."

To better describe the path that led to Holy Cross' move next to his little-known church along a rural stretch of Mountain Road, Dorlic tells the story of how the church itself came to be.

In the mid-1980s, Dorlic was serving at St. Michael's Ukrainian Church in Baltimore when he was offered a new post at St. Mary of the Assumption, a small Byzantine rite church that was looking to move from its original location in Bel Air. He accepted.

While searching for a new location, Dorlic learned that the archdiocese had contracted a demolition company to tear down the original St. Mark's Church in Joppa. He intervened with a simple request -- that the archbishop allow St. Mary of the Assumption to preserve the church and relocate there. The archbishop agreed and gave the parish $10,000 toward renovations. "The same money he would have given to a contractor to tear it down," Dorlic said.

About the same time, the two owners of the surrounding properties retired and moved to Florida, putting the land up for sale. Again, the timing was impeccable. St. Mary purchased the land, with plans to build a historic village, while preserving the original church to serve as its own.

For the past several years, said Dorlic, the small parish and its community felt something was missing -- an opportunity to provide a Catholic education to the area's many young families. But the prospect of scouting for a school that would be willing to move to St. Mary's 79 wooded acres in an easily overlooked part of town seemed daunting.

After all, he added, the church itself has remained fairly inconspicuous, mainly because of its location. "It takes a lot of publicity for people to know what and who we are," Dorlic explained. "We just got word that a lot of people in Harford County do not know that we even exist. In fact, some people who do know us sometimes cannot find us because we are in the woods. If you are not careful, driving along 152, you might not even see us."

Getting the word out, especially with no budget for advertising, also presented a challenge, he said. "And so, we were thinking of ways to bring a school to our parish, but were lacking the energy," he said.

Meanwhile, Holy Cross Academy was looking for a new home outside Baltimore because of the city's aging population and relatively low demand for Catholic education. Together, the faculty and staff set their sights on a place where the need would be greatest, where the Catholic schools were so crowded they were unable to keep up with demand.

`Where should we go?'

As middle-school teacher Sharon Booth described it, "We were looking to move out of the city and found ourselves saying, `Where should we go?'" Someone suggested Harford County. "Harford County is growing by leaps and bounds, and we thought this would be a good place to move," she said.

School officials conducted a feasibility study and, they said, received many phone calls and several other indicators urging the school to relocate to Harford County.

In June, the faculty heard about St. Mary of the Assumption and its expansive property in the heart of the county. All agreed it was exactly what they had envisioned for Holy Cross.

"When they approached us, it was almost a gift from God," Dorlic recalled.

The feeling is mutual, according to school administrators.

A resident of Baltimore County, Booth has taught at Holy Cross since 1995 and is eager for the 2003-2004 school year to begin.

"It's a nice teaching experience, because we have small class sizes and a terrific curriculum; so we can bring the students along. I have had students who have come to me barely able to read and write, and by the time they leave they have advanced so incredibly," she said. "And that means so much to a teacher, when the students are excited about what they're doing."

Administrators said they originally had hoped to open the school in Joppa last September, but the development approval process took longer than anticipated, accounting for the yearlong delay.

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