A group of students wearing white shirts emblazoned with “Mother Mary Lange School Class of 2022” formed a receiving line as several hundred guests gathered Oct. 23 for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site.
It’s a bold prediction, since none of the students attends the school. They can’t because it hasn’t been built yet.
The sixth-graders currently attend Holy Angels Catholic School and Ss. James and John Catholic School. They will be combined and be joined by other students from the area when the new Mother Mary Lange School opens in the fall of 2021 on a site just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Baltimore’s west side.
Jaylah Golder, one of the sixth-graders who will be in the first class to graduate from Mother Mary Lange, said it will be great to have a new school in the community. “With double classes, we can bring more children to the school,” she told the Catholic Review before the ceremony, at which she was one of the speakers.
Jaylah, currently at Holy Angels, hopes to spend a lot of time in the planned robotics lab, since she is in the robotics club at her current school. She may want to be a computer engineer.
Another student speaker, Breanna Ervin of Ss. James and John, said before the ceremony that she hopes to get to know the other students her school will be joining. “I want to bring into the world a new friendly face,” she said. “I want to try to bring something into the world.”
She has her career sights set, as well, as a courtroom lawyer. “I can’t wait until I win my first case.”
Breanna and Jaylah shared eloquently with more than 200 attendees what they appreciate about Catholic school education. After their speeches, James Sellinger, archdiocesan chancellor of education and master of ceremonies for the day, said, “Wow! We look forward to having you as eighth-grade leaders” when the school opens.
The two are expected to be among 400 students when the campus opens; the school can eventually accommodate 520 students in pre-K3 to eighth grade with two classrooms per grade.
The 65,000-square-foot facility will include a chapel, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) suite, state-of-the-art classrooms, a gymnasium and athletic fields. The project is expected to cost $24 million, of which $20 million has been raised from foundations, businesses and individuals.
The archdiocese also wants to create two $2.5 million endowments – one for tuition grants and aid and the other for operating expenses and facility maintenance.
Archbishop William E. Lori welcomed those attending, including donors, civic leaders and community partners. He recalled how, four years ago, he walked the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood the morning after the worst night of unrest in the city following the death of Freddie Gray after injuries sustained in police custody.
He said in talking with residents of the area, just blocks from the site of the new school, “It was clear to me then that people weren’t upset just at the death of Freddie Gray. They had had enough of the status quo, of being marginalized, of being cast aside, of being expected to settle for what was presumed to be a life predetermined for them by others, by circumstances outside of their control.
“If the church and other institutions can’t stand with them in protesting these inequities, can’t help them envision a better life for themselves and for their children, then why are we here?” the archbishop said he asked himself.
A photo slideshow follows. Story continues below.
“That is why the archdiocese is making a bold statement and an even bolder investment of $24 million in Baltimore City and in this neighborhood because we believe it is the right thing to do for our children and for this community,” he said to applause.
The archdiocese, along with public and private partners, expects to provide tuition assistance for 80 to 90 percent of the student body, most of whom will not be Catholics. He said the school would appreciate the continuation of the state BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) program, and support from the archdiocese’s Partners in Excellence and Women’s Education Alliance, which aid low-income families.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, one of several civic leaders speaking at the ceremony, said he hears people say that Baltimore is dying or dead, but he doesn’t know what Baltimore they are talking about. Referring to the students with “Class of 2022” shirts sitting on the grass nearby, he said, “These young people will be the people who will build a better Baltimore.
“This investment in them and their families will ensure our future will be in better hands,” Scott said.
City Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes the site, praised the archdiocese’s investment in the neighborhood. In an interview a few days before the groundbreaking, he said, “We’re going to have more folks in the neighborhood on a daily basis. It’s important because we’re going to have community use of the facility on the inside and the outside, so it’s something that’s really exciting for the neighborhood,” he said.
Costello said community leaders have been meeting quarterly with representatives for the past year or so, and the archdiocese has been receptive to recommendations, and has implemented some of them “I think what we’re getting is a better project than what we already had. It was a good project to start with. We’re making it better by having that community involvement.”
He said everyone – the mayor, the council, the archdiocese, donors and the community – knows that building a school cannot be done overnight. “But I think everyone in this process has been patient, understanding that the end product is going to be something that is really incredible, and is really going to benefit our kids,”
Councilman John T. Bullock, whose district borders the area where the school will be built, said in advance he’s “very excited” as a parent and educator. “Having another institution of education within our neighborhood would be great in terms of access for young people. I think it’s a great usage of the land,” he said.
Bullock has one son who currently attends Holy Angels School, and another son soon to start there. “What we see ahead of us is a truly 21st-century school, one that has the capability of preparing our young people to be successful in the future,” Bullock said. “We already have great administrators, teachers and staff. But also having the physical plant to match that is really a positive step.”
Community organizers in the area around the new campus are eager to see its completion, too. Sonia Eaddy, president of the Poppleton Now Community Association, and Paulette Carroll, president of the Townes at the Terraces, were among those to toss shovels of dirt for the formal groundbreaking.
“It’s going to change the nature of our kids, with another opportunity to see beyond,” Eaddy said. “This opens up opportunities to learn more and believe people care about them. Our community always feels left out – like nobody cares.”
Carroll said she is very grateful for the school, because she and her organization have been fighting for neighborhood facilities for years. “Kids can’t even bounce a basketball here.”
The ability to use the facilities at the school – including the gymnasium, athletic field and community rooms – will be a great benefit. She said people in the neighborhood will be very interested in the school, and many will offer to volunteer.
“We’re all working and praying that a change is coming,” Carroll said.
A Facebook livestream of the groundbreaking ceremony follows. Story continues below.
In an interview the week before the groundbreaking, Archbishop Lori said that although the school site is on the west side of MLK Boulevard, it’s close enough to the central part of the city to attracts students and families from the east side as well.
“I’m excited to see a beautiful new school be created on that site. I’m thinking about all the opportunity that this school will provide young people who live in our city, to grow in every way – spiritually, physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially,” the archbishop said.
He said the site is close to most of the students the archdiocese serves. “We’re within a half a mile of the demographic bullseye of the kids that we serve in our various schools.”
He highlighted the partnership with the neighborhood, for which the school’s facilities will be a community resource. The archdiocese also hopes to build partnerships to provide “wraparound services” for parents and students that can be provided easily on site.
Some of those wraparound services may be provided by the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore, just one of approximately 50 business and civic partners working on the new school.
UMB President Dr. Jay Perman said the university is already highly engaged in the community, providing health and social services in a variety of venues. “With regard to the school itself, we have yet to formalize partnerships, but our intention is in some way to contribute to the health services that would be provided to children in the school.”
Children – in the new Mother Lange School or in public schools in the city – don’t go to school in isolation. Many live in areas that are considered “food deserts,” where there are not a lot of grocery stores to provide healthful options for nutrition. “They need support. They come from home environments which at times need a bit of help,” Perman said.
As a pediatrician, he believes “if we can get the children of our most-needy communities educated, everything else will take care of itself. Now that may be an over-simplification, but I’m sure that it’s not too far from the truth.” He said educating the community is “our passion. That’s our commitment,” at UMB, Perman said.
Perman told the gathered crowd that his office, across MLK Boulevard from the school site, looks out at the campus. “The University of Maryland Baltimore will be a close neighbor and a partner.”
He also said that the students at Mother Mary Lange will be able to see the university all around them, and hopes that inspires them to become students, faculty members or key employees. Visitors to his office will also see the children learning, laughing and playing at the school. To see children and watch them interacting in a good way, “It’ll be good for my soul,” he said.
Jack Dwyer, chairman of the board of Capital Funding Group, made the largest single donation for the new school, $3 million. He said that after the unrest in Baltimore in 2015, he wanted to help get something done on the west side. He then met with Archbishop Lori, who told him the archdiocese was already making plans to open a school in the area. He said he told the archbishop, “I’m in.”
Dwyer, who now lives in Florida although his businesses are mostly based in Baltimore, said, “Baltimore is important to me. Corporations that do business here have an obligation to give back to the city.”
He said he has focused his philanthropy on education and recreation, and the plan for the school to include updated educational athletic facilities that can be used by students and the community fits that goal.
“In my life, it was education and recreation that kept me out of trouble,” Dwyer said a few days before the groundbreaking. “If I can help 500 kids have access to an excellent school program, we’re going to make a difference in the world.”
Dwyer, who helped toss a shovelful of dirt, said when the school opens in the fall of 2021, he hopes to see “a lot of smiling kids’ faces. And I hope that they understand what a great opportunity they have.”
Archbishop Lori said it is a priority for the church to invest in the city “and particularly in West Baltimore which needs allies and friends.”
The school is named for Mother Mary Lange, a woman of color who came to Baltimore from the Caribbean before the Civil War. “Even in a city that had Southern sympathies and where slavery was still sadly practiced, she opened up a school for young women of color, St. Frances Academy, which exists today,” he said. Mother Lange also founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence “to do this work on a grander scale, as they continue to do.”
“I couldn’t think of a better patron for what we’re trying to do at this school which is to embrace and love young people, particularly young people of color, who live in our city and to offer them a place of safety and place a love, a place of respect and a place where they can flourish,” the archbishop said.
Oblate Sister of Providence Rita Michelle Proctor, superior general of the order founded by Mother Mary Lange, said the groundbreaking was one of the happiest moments in the 192-year history of her community. Mother Lange founded the first school for girls of color in her Fells Point home in 1828 and founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of African descent, in 1829.
The new school will be “a way of continuing Mother Lange’s legacy,” she said.
Referring to the ongoing cause for canonization of Mother Lange, Sister Rita Michelle said, “It’s in God’s own time, but that would be the greatest day in our community life for the school to change from Mother Mary Lange to St. Mary Lange.”
For more on Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, click here.
Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org.