By Adelaide Mena
Nestled among the mix of shiny new storefronts, foreclosed row houses, parks, and public housing, lies what locals call the “gem of East Baltimore:” St. Frances Academy. Perduring the Civil War, social tumult, economic growth and decline in the neighborhood, the 189-year-old Catholic school still operates from the principles of its foundress, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange.Along with the building, Mother Mary Lange’s legacy has been preserved as well: to educate and form children left behind by society, particularly those of African descent. While the kinds of challenges faced by many of Baltimore’s students have changed over nearly 200 years, what has not is the need for strong, Christ-centered education in the heart of the inner city, say educators at the school.
“The kids really understand and appreciate the legacy. They know the story, they know the history,” Sister John Francis Schilling, OSP told EWTN News. “They will tell you in a minute,” she added of the students’ eagerness to share Mother Mary Lange’s story, “and are very proud of it.”
Dr. Curtis Turner, Ed.D, principal of St. Frances Academy and a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, noted that St. Frances Academy still has its eyes on the same goal their founders did – Christ.
“You’d have 180 souls really in jeopardy if we weren’t here,” the principal said to EWTN News.
In 1828, a Haitian refugee named Elizabeth Lange began teaching children of African descent, both slave and free, out of her home in Baltimore – a slave state with a large free African-American population.
“Mother Lange started this school because she wanted to teach the children of slaves about the Bible, about religion and realized they couldn’t read,” Sister John Francis recounted. While it wasn’t illegal to teach slaves in Maryland at that time, educating persons of color was socially taboo. Despite this, Lange was determined to teach the girls from her home.
A year later, Sulpician Father Nicholas Joubert approached Lange and asked if she and her co-teacher, Marie Balas, would be willing to start a religious order while continuing their work in girls’ education. Lange responded that she had been wanting to dedicate her life to God, and with the blessing of the Archbishop of Baltimore she took vows and the name “Sister Mary.”
Mother Mary Lange was named the superior of the new congregation, the Oblate Sisters of Providence – the first religious community for women of African descent in the United States.
The new order also rented a house for the community to live in and use as a school house. Today, the school continues to operate in the building it moved into in 1871, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence still help to teach and form St. Frances Academy’s hundreds of students.
Within the building, next to an English classroom and under a science lab, the room of Mother Mary Lange remains virtually undisturbed from how it was left after Lange’s death in 1882. “The kids see it and walk by,” Deacon Turner commented, adding that the emphasis on Mother Lange’s present preserves her legacy at the school. “She lived, died and prayed here.”
“It’s one of the few places where we can all claim to be third-class relics,” he joked.
Since the 1820s, both the school and the order have gone through several changes. The main school building has served as a school, a dormitory, and an orphanage over the years, and the campus has expanded to include a gym, classrooms, computer labs, and other facilities. The school has become a co-educational preparatory school.
The order has expanded, with presences in Maryland, New York, Florida, and Costa Rica, and sisters from around the globe. Mother Mary Lange’s cause for sainthood was opened in 1991 by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this growth, St. Frances Academy has persisted as the nation’s oldest African-American Catholic educational institution. In addition, the school is the oldest continually operating black educational facility in the United States, predating the founding of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania – the nation’s oldest Historically Black College – by nearly a decade.
Today, the school remains dedicated to Mother Lange’s vision and her desire to educate all those in need of a good education. “We’re carrying out her mission,” Sister John Francis said. The school continues its work despite the challenges of this mission. “She was a risk-taker, and we’re risk takers,” Sister said.
One of those risks is accepting kids who are deemed high-risk or who are suspended or expelled from school. “We take kids who are risks. Sometimes they call us the second-chance school because we allow kids the opportunity to fail and then come back,” she explained. “We’re pretty much always willing to give them a second chance.”
Another risk is the school’s decision five years ago to house a number of boys who are homeless or who don’t have stable housing or family situations, in the Fr. Joubert Housing Program. “It’s been very successful … These kids are considered to be ‘throwaway’ kids by the city,” Sister John Francis explained. The first class of students to go through the program have graduated and are now in college; both made the National Honor Society while at the Joubert program.
Deacon Turner noted that he and the lay staff who oversee the housing programs seek to treat the boys as their own children, making sure they have home-cooked meals, clothes, things to do on the weekends, and adequate furnishings for their bedrooms: “It’s like we have 16 sons on campus.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the boys are also under the sisters’ watchful eye from the convent across the street. “They know that the second they step outside of the Joubert house, they’re within sight of the convent,” Deacon Turner laughed.
The program takes some of the most at-risk students in the city and turns them into the stars of the school, the principal continued. “The funny part is what takes them a while is that they’re the kids who are the most needy, economically, but then they get here and they actually end up being the envy of the rest of the school community.”
As with the success of the boys within the Fr. Joubert Housing Program, St. Frances Academy has managed to thrive in the face of challenges – and do just as well as many area schools with more privileged students. In the past several decades, Catholic schools in Baltimore have faced wave after wave of school closings.
Deacon Turner said that 11 of the academy’s 14 feeder schools have been closed in the past 15 years, and all of its partner Catholic schools in West Baltimore have also been shuttered. “We feel like we’re the last person standing in the breach right now.”
But despite the struggles facing Baltimore’s inner city, the school itself is doing very well: “We’re a poor school, but not a broke school.” Because of their success, the faculty and administration are focusing on making sure that the tuition remains accessible for the school’s students, more than 84 percent of whom receive federal food aid for lunches.
Yet even though their tuition is considerably less than many of the city’s other Catholic and secular high schools “our kids are going to those same colleges.” The drive – and the stakes – are what set the academy’s students apart.
“The difference that we make isn’t just college or a better college, it’s college or no college – sometimes, it’s life or death without us,” Deacon Turner reflected.
Without St. Frances, many students also would not have had an introduction to what a life with Christ looks like, Deacon Turner said. “The majority of our students are not Catholic – the vast majority are not Catholic – and I would say at least half are unchurched altogether, so we’re their first introduction to a life with Christ.” In many cases, he continued, a student’s turnaround can be traced to their introduction to a Christian lifestyle and Christ himself.
“I’ve seen other organizations try to work in the city from a purely secular point of view, and of course they meet with some marginal success, but our success rate is that virtually all our kids go to college. If we tried to do that without Christ in the equation, there’s no way we’d be at that statistic,” Deacon Turner stated.
“All the challenges that an inner city child faces – economically, socially– in my opinion, can only be overcome with the help of Christ, by introducing them to Jesus.”