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Charmed Life

Old School

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/30/2002

It's a humble but meaningful memorial: a simple iron-frame bed, an old-fashioned wash stand, two wooden chairs, a crucifix nailed to the wall. This spare little chamber, tucked into a rear corner of St. Frances Academy in Johnston Square, was the private quarters of Mother Elizabeth Lange, the Haitian-born nun who founded the academy in 1828 ("Soul Sister," Dec. 1, 1999). One year after starting the school, Lange founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of African-American nuns dedicated to teaching black children. Under Lange's leadership, the nuns survived racial hostility and grinding poverty. Somehow they kept classes going, even when the church relegated them to the role of domestic servants for white priests. In 1871, they built the St. Francis Academy school that still stands at 501 E. Chase St.

Oblate Sisters still lead the resilient Catholic high school; 331 uniformed students currently travel the halls. On occasion the young people visit the founder's room, where, in addition to the bedstead, glass cases display modest historical treasures and dolls in 19th-century habits. In that little corner bed, the youths are reminded, Mother Lange died in 1882. Today, her followers are seeking to have her recognized as a saint.

Next year, the academy marks its 175th anniversary, carrying on as the nation's oldest school for African-American students. The Oblates and their colleagues, both lay and clergy, plan to celebrate the occasion throughout 2003, hoping that Baltimore and the rest of the outside world might take notice, not only of their school's history but of its present, urgent mission. At a recent meeting, nuns and teachers discussed a year's worth of events and activities: essay contests, choir performances, production of a historic video and as mother lange says . . . T-shirts, a crab feast, and a birthday-cake walk featuring 175 cakes.

Chairing the meeting was Ralph Moore, a veteran community organizer who signed on last January as director of the St. Frances Community Center. "There's great history here that the public should know about," Moore declared.

Even without the history, St. Frances has much to celebrate: 90 percent of St. Frances' graduates move on to college. A shiny new gymnasium, planned for 60 years, finally opened earlier this year. With the gym came new, computer-equipped classrooms and the community center, which features a health clinic, public meeting rooms, and a stainless-steel kitchen where cooking classes are held.

At the same time, Moore says, conditions in the surrounding community are deplorable, particularly for the young. Moore got to know the neighborhood in the early '80s, when he ran the nearby Johnston Square Food Co-op. ("We called it a co-op, but it was basically a food program" for the desperately poor, he says.) Originally, he had been hired by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center to operate a tenant-conversion program in the area. The program was supposed to turn renters into homeowners, he says, "but the folks were so poor and the houses in such bad shape that we did one tenant conversion in seven years."

If anything, Moore says, things have gotten worse. More houses are vacant and boarded up, and the median household income hangs around $10,000 per year--the same or less, in current dollars, than the median in 1980. Drug hustlers flock on the corners, despite a variety of well-meant improvements along Chase Street--the "Elder's Garden" where neighbors chat outdoors, the children's playground, the cheerful abstract mural telling the story of Frederick Douglass learning to read. "I've been going out there on the street at least an hour or an hour and a half every day," Moore says, "sometimes in the middle of trafficking." His primary aim is to lure young men into the center and hook them up with job-training programs.

As if in deliberate symbolism, the window facing south above Mother Lange's bed is filled with the jagged silhouette of the old City Jail. While that particular cruel-looking structure never darkened Mother Lange's view--it was built in 1899--there have been jails in the neighborhood since 1799. Today, says Moore, some 5,700 inmates are held within a few blocks of the school.

At first blush, the assertive, talkative Moore might seem like an odd choice to work among self-effacing, wimple-clad women. He'll never live down his moment in the national spotlight when, back in 1981, he debated then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer on an early edition of ABC's Nightline, scoffing at the "Baltimore Renaissance" hype that surrounded the opening of Harborplace. A tall, hefty man with a massive dome of a head, Moore towers over most of his colleagues and is far less committed to quiet reflection. Having worked --and butted heads--with much of the city's anti-poverty establishment, he rails against those who "want to do charity instead of change."

In this last regard, he fits right into St. Frances. With its tradition of discipline and high academic standards, the school turns out its share of star students, but it also serves as a last chance at high school for young people who have stumbled in the wrong direction. Like any other urban school, the academy is on the front lines of America's social battleground.

For personal reasons, too, Moore says that coming to work here "feels like a coming home." He has family ties and youthful memories involving the former girls' school, which went coed in 1974. Moore's mother attended in the late '30s; his daughter Zahra graduated in 2000. As a teenager attending Loyola High, Moore watched a coach full of St. Frances girls arrive for a mixer--the first African-American girls to attend such an event at Loyola. But that's not what brought him back to Johnston Square. "I love working in this neighborhood and in this area," Moore says. "It's a challenge."

One suspects that much of today's academy would startle Mother Lange: the computers, the gymnasium, the very notion of teenage boys and girls attending classes together. She would find all too familiar, though, the surrounding poverty, even the brazen lawlessness on the street. The passion and commitment of the staff--the Ralph Moores as well as the religious--would make her feel right at home.

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