Neighborhood wonders what will happen

Sacred Heart of Mary has anchored Graceland Park for decades

  • Marie Hunger, who lives across the street from Sacred Heart of Mary School, has worked as a crossing guard there since 1976 and sent all four of her children there. She has watched the number of students she shepherded dwindle since the 1980s.
Marie Hunger, who lives across the street from Sacred Heart… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
March 04, 2010|By Scott Calvert |

Lois Gresdo has long enjoyed hearing the little voices and the peals of laughter just outside her front door. But her street will be a quieter place when Sacred Heart of Mary School shuts its doors after 87 years of providing a Catholic education.

"The school is a very positive presence for these children - and for this neighborhood," Gresdo said Wednesday after word of the school's demise reached this middle-class neighborhood in far East Baltimore, a stone's throw from Dundalk.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore's decision most directly affects the 160 or so students, their parents and the school's faculty, some of whom have taught two generations of the same family. But for those who live nearby or worship at Sacred Heart of Mary Church, the news that the school will close after the academic year brings added concerns.

"This will affect the community, it will affect the housing" values, predicted Gresdo, who has lived in her 2 1/2-story clapboard home for 23 years.

"You just don't know what's going to happen," said Betty Carter, a parent and parishioner whose daughter, Jessica, attends eighth grade and whose husband went to the brick school in the 1970s.

After drying her tears Wednesday afternoon, Carter still held out hope that the building might once again be used as a school. "Am I being farfetched? Perhaps. But that's what I'd like to see." Until then, she hopes it will remain a place for church members to hold lunches and youth dances, not to mention monthly bingo nights.

The parish priest, the Rev. George Gannon, could not be reached for comment, leaving area residents to wonder, at least for now, what will become of the three-story edifice. For decades, even as enrollment slid, people felt they could count on the school's being there. It was a dependable neighborhood anchor.

"It's just a shame; it was a good school," said Marie Hunger, who lives across the street from the parish rectory. She has worked as a crossing guard since 1976, shepherding the elementary and middle school students across Youngstown Avenue at the intersection of Bethlehem Avenue.

Hunger sent all four of her children to the school between 1963 and 1978, and some of her grandchildren have attended.

Despite her strong bond with the school, Hunger is confident the neighborhood will weather the loss. "I don't think it'll change too much," she said of Graceland Park, a collection of modest single-family homes and duplexes straddling the city line.

The school's roots go back to 1925, when a priest named Stanislaus Wikarski recommended a new church and school to serve the growing Polish population. Archbishop Michael Curley agreed, according to a history on the school's Web site, and the first parish meeting took place that year on Palm Sunday.

The school opened in 1927 under the auspices of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, who remained in charge for half a century. By 1950, enrollment swelled to 600, and in 1965 construction began on a larger school with 24 classrooms. All through the 1970s, enrollment remained high.

The school's decline began in the 1980s. Nearby Fort Holabird closed; production fell at Bethlehem Steel. Tuition began to rise toward its present $5,500 a year, and the size of the student body fell below 400 in the 1990s and, eventually, sank under 200.

Hunger noticed a steady drop in the number of children crossing the street before and after school. She once supervised 60 students. Now most afternoons she keeps an eye on just 20, even though a fair number of students still live within walking distance.

"I could see the numbers were going down," she said. "You had to know."

For Gresdo, news of the school's closing is "very upsetting." She sympathizes with parents, some of them her neighbors, who are wary of public schools and now must search for an alternate.

She also worries about the school building looming across Youngstown Avenue.

"You don't want to be next door to an empty house, no less a building the size of that," she said. "You don't know what's going to happen - the crime it may bring to the area. It's taken a lot away from this community."

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