By Maria Wiering
In the mid-1970s, board members of the Institute of Notre Dame urged the girls’ high school to relocate from its East Baltimore home. The surrounding neighborhood was in decline, and other Catholic high schools had left the city for the northern suburbs.
Convinced of the school’s value to Baltimore City, School Sister of Notre Dame Louis Marie Koesters, IND principal at the time, was instrumental in keeping it on Aisquith Street.
“My aunt just had this strong conviction that IND belonged there,” said Dr. Margaret Gessler, Sister Louis Marie’s niece, IND science teacher, pediatrician – and mother of four IND graduates.
The school remains a pillar in the predominately low-income neighborhood. However, the area is changing again, as The Johns Hopkins Institutions expand nearby. While IND stays put, its surroundings may be entirely different in the coming decades.
When the School Sisters of Notre Dame founded its motherhouse near the present school in 1847, the land was forested countryside. (The motherhouse later moved to North Charles Street.) Under the leadership of Blessed Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, the S.S.N.D.’s American foundress, the sisters began to take in orphans and opened a girls’ school in 1852.
Today, the five-story, red-brick school shares its street with low-rise apartment complexes. Originally built to accommodate soldiers returning from World War II, those complexes now serve as public housing.
“They are our neighbors,” said School Sister Hilda Marie Sutherland, 81, who has lived at the school since age 14. Known to all as Sister Hildie, she organizes regular charitable outreaches to the local community with students called “Hildie’s Helpers.”
The school is proud of its longstanding commitment to the community, as the efforts of IND women include an array of service work, a draw for aspiring students.
Its student body of about 380 is about 52 percent white, 45 percent black and less than 3 percent Asian or Hispanic.
They hail from about 72 ZIP codes, more than 100 middle schools and span the spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds. Most are Catholic, but 30 percent practice other religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam.
“Our children leave here after four years with a true holistic experience in all dimensions of life,” said Mary Funke, IND president. “They can go anywhere at any time and be comfortable.”
The S.S.N.D.’s charism is to serve others, said Amy Conly, a 1993 graduate and the school’s admissions director. “Education will allow our girls to serve the greater need and be able to transform society,” she said. “They see things that heighten their awareness of how fortunate they are, and that they need to give back.”
Graduates “give back” in a variety of ways, including public service. Two of the most powerful women in Congress are among IND’s notable alumna: U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Martha McKenna, a 1992 graduate and board member, said attending the school fostered friendships with girls from diverse backgrounds, resulting in a commitment to Baltimore City that continues to this day. She lived in Towson while in high school, but made her home in the city after college.
“It opened doors for me to different parts of the city, different backgrounds, different geographical areas,” said McKenna, a 38-year-old media consultant. “The school’s traditions and history on Aisquith Street are such positive things for creating leaders for the 21st century, because we are moving into an increasingly global and increasingly diverse world.”
Incoming senior Sydney Pope, 17, shares that perspective.
“I definitely feel like we have Baltimore City as our entire campus, not just 901 Aisquith,” she said.
Because girls come from all over, including East Baltimore, Pope and her friends “showcase the diversity in our home lives, racially, the things we’re interested in,” she said. “Not all my friends love theater like I do. I have friends who want to be doctors, who want to be writers. … It’s definitely a diverse space where people can grow into what they love.”
The surrounding community appreciates the role IND plays, as it has for decades. Neighborhood residents protected the school in the city-wide riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hanging cardboard signs with the words “Soul sisters: Do not touch” on the building’s exterior, recalls Sister Hildie.
Part of that appreciation stems from the school’s outreach to the neighborhood. IND works to instill a value for social justice in its students through a variety of service programs at IND and other Baltimore locations. Among them is Project K.IND, which pairs IND students with elementary and middle school students in big-sister, little-sister relationships.
Class of 2004 alumna Emilee Flynn, 27, said that the school, including its inner-city location, inspired her desire to serve urban populations as a doctor. She is currently in a pediatric medical residency at a Philadelphia hospital that focuses on low-income, urban children.
As with other areas of East Baltimore, the school’s neighborhood, Johnston Square, has a reputation for drugs, crime and unemployment, but the IND community is largely unaffected. Stereotypes of the area are more of a challenge to the school than the actual issues, Funke said. “It’s sacred ground,” she said of the school.
Scott Fridley, 50, sent his three daughters to IND; his youngest, Erin, is a sophomore. Any concerns he had about the location were allayed when a neighborhood representative at an open house said they look out for IND girls.
“When you compare it to other Catholic high schools and private high schools in the area, one of the big things you’ll notice is that almost all of the other schools have built fences around their campuses,” said Scott, a parishioner of St. Mark in Catonsville. “It seems like they try to keep the outside from coming into the inside of the school. At IND, they do more things to welcome the community in.”
That community is transitioning again. Community revitalization efforts are in progress to the school’s north, and to its east, new homes, lab and office space and shopping districts are underway in the 88-acre Science and Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, near The Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.
IND already emphasizes science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) classes, and the park could offer new opportunities for field trips, speakers and internships, said Gessler, who leads the school’s Biomedical Sciences Program.
IND’s presence in East Baltimore helps to stabilize and improve the neighborhood, said Chris Shea, president of the East Baltimore Development Inc., which promotes the area’s revitalization.
“It provides the community with hope and inspiration that their striving to improve the community is supported by others,” he said. “Those are the things that have to occur in the civic environment if the city as a whole, and these neighborhoods, are going to survive.”
Although the surrounding scenery may change, IND is rooted in place, Funke said – something for which Pope is grateful.
“I feel like IND is such a cornerstone of the community,” Pope said. “Baltimore wouldn’t be the same without it.”
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