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
CNA. “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
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 –
“You’d have 180 souls really in jeopardy if we weren’t here,” the principal said to CNA.
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
“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
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
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.”