The Baltimore area's first new convent in decades for a growing religious order opened its doors Sunday afternoon to give visitors a peek inside.
Mount de Sales Academy, a Catonsville landmark and high school, welcomed more than 1,000 people to view the newly built convent, giving them what may be the only opportunity to see the entire structure, as everything but a few designated areas will be cloistered.
"This is a real blessed moment," said Mother Ann Marie, the mother general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation of Nashville, Tenn., who came for the dedication of the convent chapel and open house.
"This place is very conducive to prayer and for living our life," said Sister Maria Teresita. The sisters spend much of their time in silent study and contemplation designed to foster a relationship with God.
The brick building has modern conveniences — including a work room with four computers and space for more, as the sisters have administrative and teaching duties.
The first-floor spaces are for their communal use; guests may be invited into only the foyer, a sitting room and chapel. From the chapel's rear window, the cupola of the academy's classroom building is visible.
A spacious kitchen for preparing meals that the sisters take together has countertops made of St. Cecilia granite, a stone that shares its name with the order.
"That's why we chose it," quipped the school's principal, Sister Anne Catherine.
Their bedrooms, known as cells, are upstairs. They are furnished sparsely, with a twin bed, a desk, two chairs, a small dresser and no personal electronics — the sisters spend most of their nonteaching and nonwork hours in silence. "We really try to stress a life of simplicity," she said.
"If we are enriched by living our contemplative life, then the girls will be enriched," said Sister Philip Joseph, the director of academy advancement.
The building can house 12, though eight live there now.
"Now we can get more sisters," said Carol Nevin of Finksburg, a student in the Class of 2013.
"Our community is growing," said Sister Anne Catherine. While the median age for most religious sisters in America is around 75, she said, it's 36 for the Nashville Dominicans.
The academy's student body is also expanding. Founded in 1852 by Visitation nuns in Georgetown, the school has seen its student population expand under the Dominican Sisters, a teaching order. It had 201 students in 1984, and will open its doors this fall to 507 girls.
The eight nuns moved into the new convent three weeks ago, leaving the Gatehouse and its makeshift quarters where they'd been living for 25 years. The Gatehouse, at the entryway to the campus is a former hunting lodge well over a century old, adapted for the academy's chauffeur and then for the school chaplain and caretaker. Only after the Dominican Sisters came in 1985 to operate the school was the building reborn as a convent, its floors uneven, its rooms oddly shaped and its spaces cramped.
Mother Ann Marie grew concerned a few years ago. She feared for their safety of the women in case of fire, especially those in the attic.
"They never complained about it. But I came to visit and I went up to the attic," she said. She broached the subject of a new convent with the school's trustees.
Visitors marveled at the difference between the new convent, which, though comfortable, is devoid of frills, and the old one.
"I don't know how they were able to manage in there, eight of them," said Josee Jennot of Catonsville, whose daughter attends Mount de Sales. "Eight of them? It's small, old. And that top floor — you've got to watch your head," she said, referring to the low ceilings in the attic and the ease of cracking one's forehead where the staircase passes beneath the second-floor ceiling.
The new building was part of the $4 million first phase of fundraising, which includes security features and a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for the historic classroom building. About $180,000 has yet to be raised. Officials hope to start fundraising next month for Phase 2, an estimated $2 million overhaul of the athletic field and the addition of stadium seating. Phase 3 is planned to include a performing arts center building at an estimated cost of $8 million to $9 million.