Past Times at Seton High

Alumnae remember the old days as they visit the newly renovated school


What a bunch of rule-breakers those Seton High girls are.

Back at the school Saturday, they tromped up and down the once off-limits golden stairs. They ate muffins and drank lemonade in the chapel. And then - in the hallways where talking was forbidden and students had to walk single-file between classes - Mary Sue Frankowski broke into song.

"We are the girls of Seton High / You hear so much about," Frankowski sang, stomping her feet to keep time as others joined in the ruckus. "The people stop and stare at us / Whenever we go out."

Frankowski, Class of 1957, was one of about 700 Seton alumnae who returned to the school last weekend as invited guests of the Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins bought the Seton High building, at Charles and 28th streets, in 2003 and spent $7.8 million converting it into a home for the Graduate Division of Education.

With the work now complete, the school was opened to alums Saturday, many of whom had not been in the building in decades. The Roman Catholic school closed in 1988, and the classic rust brick and red stone building was sold and used as office space, the big classrooms cut into small cubicles.

Alumnae considered their school building off-limits. Class reunions were held in hotels and restaurants. And although the alums were a large group, with strong bonds, they were, in a sense, homeless.

`Wonderful memories'

"I didn't think we'd ever get an opportunity like this again," said Kelly Nickey, Class of 1977. She had come with her friend and classmate Victoria Sanders, and Sanders had come with a plastic bag filled with mementos - her name bar, her sophomore pin, her class ring.

"It brings back such wonderful memories," Sanders said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

The imposing five-story, 73,000-square-foot building was completed in 1908 and housed the St. Joseph's School of Industry until 1926.

The school trained women for home and industrial work. In 1926, Seton High School was founded to provide an academic and business curriculum for girls.

The school was owned and run by the Sisters of Charity, and they kept the girls in line. According to a 1935 edition of the school newspaper on display Saturday, posters were put up in each classroom showing the "ideal Setonite with clean hands, face and neck, hair combed, shoes polished and stockings without a wrinkle." Lipstick and nail polish were not permitted.

The girls traveled in single-file lines between classes, with a leader and a follower making sure no one misbehaved. Those who talked, chewed gum or had dirt on their shoes received detention slips.

And traipsing up and down the grand three-story central staircase - known as the golden stairs for its shiny gold patina - was strictly forbidden. It was reserved for the nuns, while students used the narrow side staircases.

But the girls still had their fun. "The cafeteria used to have the most wonderful glazed doughnuts," said Sheila Fitzpatrick, Class of 1962. She would go to the cafeteria first thing every morning to chat with friends and eat a second breakfast.

"I took two buses from Catonsville," Fitzpatrick said.

"I took three buses from Woodlawn," boasted Carol Rogers, also Class of '62. She said if she ever got home before 6 p.m., her mother knew she was sick.

At its peak, in the '50s and '60s, the school drew 1,200 girls from 70 parishes across the region. When it closed in 1988, enrollment was down to 355.

The school was merged with Archbishop Keough High School on Caton Avenue - providing a bigger campus with modern facilities but none of the memories.

"We were not invited to come back," said Patricia Troy Chalfant, Class of 1961.

After the school closed, the building served as the headquarters for the Johns Hopkins Health Plan. Later occupants of the building included Prudential Healthcare, Sheppard Pratt Health System and the Argus Group, a private company.

Charm still remains

The Johns Hopkins University bought the building in 2003 and began renovation work. Despite all the work done, alumnae said the original charm and character of the building have been preserved - the heavy wooden doors, the molding and woodwork, skylights, the operable glass transoms above the doorways, and the stained-glass windows depicting various saints and angels.

"There was a spirit there that you just can't explain to people," said Edda Rosskopf, Class of '56 and president of the alumni association. "Everything that happened there is a happy memory for people. They just wanted to come back and see it."

The alumnae visiting last weekend noticed a few changes to the building. The nuns' living quarters now serve as a computer lab. The kitchen is a seminar room. And the old phone-booth-sized elevator is now an electrical closet. That, at least, they don't miss so much.

"If you didn't have polio or a broken leg, you didn't ride it," Chalfant told a tour group she was taking through the building. "And once you did ride it, you wished you didn't."

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