Institute of Notre Dame (Photo by Eli Pousson, March 14, 2018. Flickr)
BALTIMORE – The other day, when they announced the closing of the Institute of Notre Dame, after 173 years of educating young women, I remembered a sign that hung in a classroom there the last time I went looking for traces of Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Mikulski.
The sign said, “Reach for the World.” It was there when those two remarkable political figures were students at Notre Dame, and maybe it remains. But now there’s no one reaching for their checkbooks, and so goes the school, and so goes a marvelous history.
Notre Dame’s been around since 1847. The sisters who started it helped slaves reach freedom during the Civil War. The nuns tended to the sick during the flu epidemic of 1918. But the school closes in this pandemic of 2020.
Notre Dame offered a classic college-prep education, but the learning went beyond the classics. The world around the school changed, but the girls kept coming, and found learning beyond its Aisquith Street classrooms.
Across bleak, hilly Aisquith Street sits the under-nourished Latrobe Housing Projects. The Maryland Penitentiary’s not far beyond that. And, just above the school, there’s the former Church of St. James.
For a while, the neighborhood got so rough that they had to put up a barbed-wire fence and encircle the church. It looked as though God himself had been placed in protective custody.
But Notre Dame stayed where it was. The girls’ parents pulled their cars up to the school’s front door every morning and dropped them off, and in the afternoon safely picked them up.
When young Nancy D’Alesandro went there, her dad was mayor of Baltimore. His City Hall limousine would drop young Nancy a block from the school. The future Speaker of the House would walk the rest of the way, not wanting to look like some privileged character to her classmates. She graduated in 1958.
When young Barbara Mikulski went there, her parents owned a little grocery store. Mikulski’s classmates were a cross-section of Catholic girlhood: some were the daughters of judges; others were immigrants whose mothers scrubbed floors so their daughters could afford to attend. The future U.S. Senator graduated in 1953.
All kinds of people, and institutions, have fled the city of Baltimore over the last half-century, but Notre Dame stayed. It was an oasis of stability in a section of town hungry for some stature.
But now the school will close its doors June 30, partly from long-simmering financial troubles and partly because the coronavirus pandemic has made those troubles far worse.
The school would need at least $5 million in immediate repairs, and $34 million to make it a state-of-the-art facility. In the last five years, enrollment has dropped dramatically, and so has financial assistance, even as most students were receiving financial aid. The current coronavirus has only made matters worse.
Some years back, when I wrote a book called “Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore,” about the American melting pot, I visited Notre Dame a few times, and also interviewed Pelosi and Mikulski about their experience there.
They both adored the place.
Pelosi remembered a sign that hung in the front vestibule, and recited it by heart: “School is not a prison, it is not a playground. It is Time, it is Opportunity.” It still hung there when I visited decades later. A school official looked up young Nancy’s high school grade point average. It was 93.22.
Mikulski’s experience was a little different. She said she’d been a “mischievous” kid. One year she flunked geometry – and sewing. She said she graduated 80th out of 120.
“In high school,” she said, “I was rockin’ and rollin’. I was mouthy.”
But she was listening, as well.
“Notre Dame,” she said, “gave you values. And you had to put those into action. The nuns told us, ‘You know, when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he really meant it. Love your neighbor. And the way you loved your neighbor was feed the hungry, heal the sick.”
Notre Dame taught such values for 170 years. What a loss its closing is for Baltimore. What a gift that the school produced such women as Pelosi and Mikulski, who went beyond Baltimore and reached for the world.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.