Oblate nuns get deserved praise from Cosby's wife

July 10, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

BILL COSBY, the actor, comedian and philanthropist, has on two recent occasions been accused of "airing black folks' dirty linen" in public.

The first was at Constitution Hall in May, when Cosby chided those blacks who, in his words, haven't held up "their end of the bargain" in educational achievement. In the past two weeks, Cosby lashed out at those Afro-Americans who insist on blaming white people for the conduct of those blacks.

Cosby's wife, Camille Cosby, was in Baltimore July 2. She mentioned in her speech the "76 percent of African-American males who do not finish public high school in Baltimore City ... and more than 50 percent of Baltimore ninth-graders [who] drop out of public schools."

More dirty laundry? Or have husband and wife Cosby simply been telling the truth?

They've been telling the truth. Camille Cosby, speaking at a fund-raising dinner to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, had several truths to share in her speech. Some were about the church that the order of black nuns served.

"The church did not consider slavery a sin," Cosby said. "The archdiocese in Baltimore, at least once, sought the cooperation of the Maryland chapter of the American Colonization Society, a political group that sought to rid the country of all free blacks, who were perceived to be dangerous."

Cosby noted that one archbishop argued that slavery was absolutely approved by canon law and that another owned slaves, along with many priests and sisters, who diligently instructed their "people property" in the requirements and rituals of their church.

You wouldn't expect Camille Cosby to shy away from ugly truths like that. But most of her speech was to praise the Oblate Sisters for their perseverance through racism and slavery, all the while educating black children. It's praise that is long overdue.

"I thought it was excellent," said Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, the director of ongoing information for the Oblate Sisters, adding: "Right and to the point."

Camille Cosby comes by her devotion to the Oblates honestly: They were the nuns who taught her when she went to St. Cyprian's Elementary School in Washington.

"I don't know if the school still exists," said Joel Brokaw, a spokesman for Bill and Camille Cosby. But it's clear that Camille Cosby's fondness for the Oblates does.

And why wouldn't it? Camille Cosby remembers when her brother, three years younger than she, entered St. Cyprian's unable to read in the third grade.

"You'll forgive the exaggeration," she said, "if I say he was ready for Shakespeare by the end of his first week after our sisters began shaping him up."

Yes, it was an exaggeration, but an instructive one about the work the Oblate Sisters continue to do to this day at St. Frances Academy in one of the roughest, toughest parts of East Baltimore. Contrary to the notion of those who apologize for failing public schools by saying private schools get to cream the top echelon of students, St. Frances has taken public school kids who were flunking and turned them into the 92 percent of the academy's students who go on to college.

"We always try to help those who are in the greatest need," Sister Mary Alice said. "However, [the students] have to work themselves up into some kind of academic performance or they can't stay."

Students who do improve their academic performance at St. Frances - which teaches grades nine through 12 - are, Camille Cosby pointed out, from the same demographic that the Baltimore public school system serves. St. Frances manages to get 92 percent of its students from that demographic to attend college. (The national average is 65 percent.)

Baltimore's public high schools, at least since 1996 and through the school year ending in June last year, have yet to graduate 59 percent of their students, according to the Maryland Department of Education's Web site.

What's the difference? Maybe it's the leadership.

"The total of students taught by them over their many years may surpass thousands," Camille Cosby said last week of the Oblate Sisters. The sisters have been doing that well, and with few resources, for 175 years. And they did it, Camille Cosby pointed out, "despite the neglect of them by their church and because of their faith."

Those sisters who taught Camille Cosby at St. Cyprian's are from the same order as the ones who taught me in Sunday and Bible school at St. Pius V at Schroeder Street and Edmondson Avenue. It looks like both of us - and all the others the Oblate Sisters taught - owe them a debt of thanks.

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