Man makes donation in memory of ancestors who were nuns

Reeves' ancestors nursed the sick poor and educated young women

March 04, 2011|Jacques Kelly

I sat at a table at the Maryland Club and listened to Baltimore storyteller and attorney Charles B. Reeves Jr. talk about the pair of his ancestors he will be honoring Saturday night.

After a lengthy career at the Venable law firm, he realized an investment profit in a propulsion business. He recently gave those proceeds to help complete a $475,000 restoration of an 1860 organ at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church on North Calvert Street, where I met him many years ago. The rededication concert begins at 7:30 p.m. His family has been listening to that organ since it first sounded before the Civil War.

While his name will go on this bequest, he told me his gift is in the memory of two of his ancestors, two Baltimore women who "renounced the world" and gave their lives in service to others — one to nurse the infigent sick, the other to educate young women.

By the standards of the 19th century, Reeves' great-aunt, Anna Tiers Reeves, was once one of the most eligible women in Baltimore. She was well-educated, first at Miss Wilson Cary's School on Charles Street and later at the Sacred Heart School in Torresdale, Pa. She spoke excellent French, a language that served her well.

"Since her return from school and her entrance into Baltimore society, she has been one of the most popular of the younger set. She is a brunette, tall, with commanding appearance, clear cut features and a striking figure," The Sun reported in 1899 at the time of her decision to withdraw from high society and join a Catholic convent.

"She would be at the early Mass at St. Ignatius no matter how late she had stayed out the night before," Reeves told me the other day. "Her grandmother took her on a tour of Europe to see if she could get the notion of joining the order out of her. It didn't work."

The news of Miss Reeves' decision to give it all up and spend the next five years in a probationary period within the Daughters of Charity became something of a national news story. The New York Times wrote, "Miss Reeves was for several seasons prominent in Newport and New York society." The paper said she was "determined to take some such step" and did so.

She left Baltimore and joined the religious order at its hospital on Gerard Avenue in Philadelphia. Before long, she was assigned to the order's Rue de Bac headquarters in Paris. Her skills and talents were immediately recognized. She became the order's secretary for the U.S. and Canada, a post she held for about four decades. She only came home to die as the Germans were advancing on Paris in World War II.

"The duties of the sisters are quite trying. They arise at 4 o'clock every morning; eat but one meal a day and live the simplest of simple lives," according to The Sun article. The paper described their "streaming cornettes," or pointed white headgear. Her order cared for the poor in its hospitals.

"We are sorry to see our daughter leave us," her father, another Charles Reeves, said in 1899. "But she seemed to feel it her duty to do so, and as we thought it would make her happy, she has done so with our full consent."

At one point Miss Reeves, who had become Sister Marie Reeves, worked alongside her sibling, Ella Tiers Reeves Clotworthy, in aiding Russian and Polish refugees in Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Reeves women must have taken to the assignments well. Ella was the only female vice president of an American steamship company in 1926, when she became an officer of the Old Bay Line. She also ran the Green Door Tea Room on Charles Street and was an ardent foe of Prohibition.

The memorial is also being given in the name of another aunt, Charles Reeves' mother's sister, Eleanor Kenny, who joined an order called the Madames of the Sacred Heart. She used her personal fortune to buy a home on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington that became the Stone Ridge School in Bethesda. Once again, not all the family approved.

"My mother, her sister, did not follow her lead. She took off and went to Ireland for the winter fox hunting," Reeves told me.

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