Brother Gabriel Cecilian, 93, Calvert Hall principal

March 25, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Brother Gabriel Cecilian, who as principal led Calvert Hall College High School's move from downtown Baltimore to a much larger Towson campus, died Monday at his order's retirement home in Lincroft, N.J., of complications after a fall. He was 93.

One of the city's best-known Roman Catholic educators, he was a member of the Christian Brothers for 78 years.

"He wasn't what you might call the principal type. I suppose he had an office, but I don't think any of us ever saw him in it. He was always around the hallways, and as such, unassuming, accessible," said Steve Gavin, a Calvert Hall alumnus and former News American columnist who lives in Burlington, N.J.

"He had a slight reserve about him, a shyness, I suppose, but somehow you knew he cared and was there for you," Mr. Gavin said. "He was a sweet man and a good one."

Born Thomas S. Cannon in Scranton, Pa., he entered the Christian Brothers in 1924 and received his religious name, Gabriel Cecilian, in 1926. He taught in his order's schools in Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Canton, Ohio, before being named principal of Calvert Hall in 1950.

One of his early accomplishments was founding the school's marching band, tapping advice from Hippodrome Theatre musical director Felice Iula. It performed on municipal occasions, including the triumphant return of city leaders after the negotiations to bring the St. Louis Browns baseball franchise to Baltimore as the major-league Orioles in the fall of 1953.

"Brother Gabriel started the band during my years there," said Mr. Gavin, who attended Calvert Hall from 1952 to 1955. "Harold Hill couldn't have been happier," he said, alluding to the fictional band organizer of The Music Man.

Then Brother Gabriel set his sights on building a school in Baltimore County.

"The new school was all so distant then, but he spoke of it often, almost wistfully," Mr. Gavin said. "I don't think any of us thought it would happen, but he pulled it off."

Calvert Hall then was housed in a Victorian stone building at the southwest corner of Cathedral and Mulberry streets. In 1960, it moved to a 32-acre campus in the Eudowood section of Towson.

"It was H.L. Mencken who said of the old Hall that it was one of the few buildings in Baltimore with no redeeming architectural features. It had no symmetry or grace," said Brother Patrick Ellis, a Christian Brother and past president of Catholic University of America.

"The school was so crowded. Without playing fields, there was no room to keep it a first-rate institution. Our students' families were expecting better. He intuitively sensed the need for a change."

Brother Gabriel became friends with many local political leaders and the school's alumni, who financially backed the move to the suburbs. He also had a box at Memorial Stadium for Orioles games.

As a policy, he did not allow fellow Christian Brothers to cheer for any other team, no matter their private loyalties. "The purpose of this box is not served by doing that," he was quoted as saying to those rooting for the wrong team.

"Working the city's leaders was not characteristic of religious administrators at that time," Brother Patrick said. "They were supposed to be humbly cloistered. Gabe was just one of those people who was extremely outgoing and was totally accepted. He fit into Baltimore."

"He wanted the school to have a very diverse socioeconomic mix," said Brother Kevin Stanton, who was a young teacher there in 1961 and now is its president. "The stories are legendary about the people who owe so much to him because their parents did not have tuition money. He was generous to a fault and could not turn a student who wanted an education away. This is truly the house that Gabe built."

"He accomplished much without a terribly organized determination. A classic remark was, `When somebody gave him a $10 donation, he'd give them a $15 thank-you present,'" said Brother Patrick.

After stepping down as principal in 1962, Brother Gabriel volunteered to administer his order's schools in the Philippines. He was principal of Manila's LaSalle-Greenhills High School and oversaw a network of rural schools.

In 1982, he returned to Calvert Hall as director of alumni relations and then became director of his order's retirement home in Prince George's County. He retired in 1993.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 8 p.m. tomorrow at the school, 8102 LaSalle Road.

Survivors include a niece and nephew.

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