90-year-old volunteers at Franciscan Center that raised her

Barnes helps former orphanage that still serves those in need

  • A photo from 1919 shows the sewing room at the Franciscan Sisters convent on 23rd Street, which gave a home to African-American orphans in Baltimore.
A photo from 1919 shows the sewing room at the Franciscan Sisters… (Franciscan Center photo )
March 01, 2010|By Jacques Kelly | Baltimore Sun reporter

Cora Barnes has a deep respect for the upbringing she received at the Baltimore orphanage she knew throughout her youth. She learned her algebra and Roman Catholic Latin hymns. She sang at midnight Masses and said her prayers. She also never forgot the love and friendships formed at the little-known institution.

And now, nearly eight decades after she arrived at the orphanage, she returns weekly to its brick buildings set between Maryland Avenue and Howard Street. For the past 17 years, she has been a volunteer at what is now the Franciscan Center, where she sorts women's clothes and works actively with the poor and homeless. The center recently helped her celebrate her 90th birthday.

She also retains a strong affection for the school and home that helped her navigate what could have been a difficult period.

There were only four young women in Barnes' 1942 graduating class. She and 60 girls in the school were orphans or children in the care of the Franciscan Sisters, an order of women who housed, fed and educated the African-American children left at their doorsteps or brought to the sisters to be raised.

The religious order has since changed its mission. The sisters no longer take in orphans. They have converted their former convents into housing for low-income residents and homeless women. They run the social service center where Barnes returns to help with scores of other volunteers who give a day or two a week in a highly personalized setting that does its best to overcome notions of cold charity.

For example, one day last week, a busload of Calvert Hall College High School students stacked canned goods and served hot meals to the 200 men and women who made their way down Ware Street, the alley that runs behind Maryland Avenue. Other Baltimore charities, including the Helping Up Mission, give clothes there. Upstairs, social workers help clients who face eviction and utility cutoff.

On the Tuesdays when Barnes returns to 23rd Street, she works only a wall or two away from the combined convent-orphanage kitchen where she learned basic housekeeping skills 80 years ago.

"It was really a very happy time in my life," said Barnes, who lives in nearby Waverly. "We got up early for Mass, had breakfast, did our chores and went to school."

In racially segregated Baltimore, there were black Roman Catholic parishes, schools and orphanages. Barnes and her sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, were all sent to the care of the Franciscan Sisters, a London-founded order whose members worked with the poor. Recruited to work in Baltimore, they chose to run an orphanage for children who were shunned by the city's other Roman Catholic religious communities.

"I got a good upbringing from the sisters," Barnes said. "I think we need some orphanages right now; there are kids out there who need a good upbringing."

The sisters found local philanthropists to help with their work. They acquired an orphanage downtown, on Saratoga Street, but after it burned shortly before World War I, they bought a wooded tract named Chestnut Hill on Ellerslie Avenue near today's Ednor Gardens and the Memorial Stadium site.

"We wanted a spot that was secluded," said Sister Ellen Carr, interim director of the Franciscan Center. "There was tremendous prejudice against African-American orphans."

The orphan babies and boys were housed in a 1916 monastic-like structure set on Ellerslie Avenue. The girls, from the first grade through high school, lived in the sisters' Maryland Avenue and 23rd Street complex that combined a convent, chapel, school and dormitory.

Barnes was one of three sisters placed in the nuns' care. As the youngest of the three, she was initially separated from her older siblings and lived in the Ellerslie Avenue building. But Barnes begged to be reunited with them. The nuns agreed and the three girls lived together in the Maryland Avenue orphanage until they were out of high school. She retains her family ties by spending the month of December with her surviving sister, Mary.

Barnes, who married and had two sons, never strayed too far from the Franciscan Sisters. She tried a job, but didn't like it. Instead, she worked in the nuns' nursery and cooked for the sisters on weekends.

When Good Samaritan Hospital opened in 1968, she took a job in its laundry and worked for 28 years. She then retired and went back as a volunteer for another six years.

Barnes has never stopped working. On the weekday mornings she isn't at the Franciscan Center, she goes to the same Ellerslie Avenue building she wanted to escape as a child. While much of that former orphanage is now low-income housing, about 12 nuns live in the building. She is its doorkeeper, or portress.

"I answer the phone and the doorbell and get on people's nerves," she said. "And I am glad to still be in a beautiful place."

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