The spirit of a school is difficult to describe. The closure of a school makes it even harder. Saint Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys has been closed for sixty-five years, yet its spirit remains with many Xaverian Brothers and boys who benefitted from its program. The spirit of this school goes beyond nostalgia, to something kindled deep in its story—captured in the imagination, mind, and heart of students and teachers alike. What in the deep story of a school inspires this enduring spirit? Saint Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys has a very unique story.
Saint Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys (1866-1950) cared for over 20,000 residents. From the start, the school’s curriculum served the special needs of its students. The story Saint Mary’s, like that of Saint Xavier’s in Louisville and that of Mount Saint Joseph’s in Baltimore, is a part of the deep story of the American Foundation of the Xaverian Brothers.
In 1864 John Martin Spalding left Louisville to become Archbishop of Baltimore. In 1866 the Archbishop would request from Brother Vincent Terhoeven, Superior General, Brothers to assist him in Baltimore as they had done in Louisville. Brother Vincent knew first hand that the needs in America were great. He was in the first colony of Brothers sent to Louisville in 1854. Brother Vincent agreed to send a band of four Brothers. Brothers Paul Van Gerwen and Augustine, still a novice, would arrive on August 17th from Louisville. Brothers Polycarp and Sebastian would arrive from Bruges a couple of weeks later.
Archbishop Spalding knew Brother Paul Van Gerwen from Louisville and wrote the following letter to him:
June 20, 1866
My Dear Brother Paul:
I am delighted that you are to be the founder and superior of our new colony. The Superior General was kind enough to inform me of this already. You know the country and will not be disheartened by the difficulties, which might frighten a new man. In the beginning everything has to be created and there will be of course many inconveniences. We have determined to open in the fall on a small scale…
Yours in Christ,
M.J. Spalding, D.D.
As was true in Louisville, immigrant Catholics in Baltimore suffered from the effects of poverty and from the social and religious bigotry of Know-Nothings. As is true today, no one suffers from poverty more than children. Among poor immigrant Catholics, the number of orphans, semi-orphans, and wayward adolescent boys alarmed Archbishop Spalding. In his mind, Catholic boys received poor treatment in city facilities. Due to religious bigotry, priests were often prevented from ministering to the children who were exposed to a steady diet of anti-Catholic propaganda. It is in this context that Archbishop Spalding asked Brother Paul Van Gerwen to start Saint Mary’s Industrial School. Archbishop Spalding knew Brother Paul would get the job done. He had a proven record. By 1866, Brother Paul had supervised the Brothers in six elementary schools and founded Saint Xavier College (1864) in Louisville under similar adverse conditions.
The need was clear. As noted by his contemporaries, Brother Paul was very mission driven—single-minded. His passion to serve the poor as Christ did motivated him and his confrères to bear very difficult conditions.
When Paul, Augustine, Polycarp and Sebastian reached Baltimore, their home was an unfinished and unfurnished frame shanty. Nothing else existed on the property. The living conditions were stark. For the next few months the Brothers would take off the habit after Mass and breakfast and work all day, along side hired workmen, cutting down trees and building dormitories and classrooms. By October the place was ready to receive boys. On October 3rd, the first boy registered. By the end of the first year there were 40 boys enrolled. At the end of the second year, there were eighty-eight.
In Brother Paul Van Gerwen’s mind, Saint Mary’s mission was equally clear:
While we impart to the boys under our care the usual elements of primary instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography, we aim also to train their hearts to virtue, and thus to form them in those virtues which will make them good citizens, by first making them good Christians. We are happy to be able to report that their progress in learning has been satisfactory, while their general good conduct has come up fully to the standards of our reasonable expectations. (Annual Report, 1868, Brother Paul Van Gerwen).
His zeal and that of the small band of Brothers was ardent.
Certainly we are grateful for Archbishop Spalding who was truly a good shepherd and cared deeply about the children of his archdiocese. He took risks to serve the most needy. We are grateful to Brother Vincent Terhoeven for reading the signs of the times and for sending the small band of Brothers to show God’s care and compassionate love to those …who suffer from want, neglect and injustice: the poor, the weak and the oppressed of this world. Brother Vincent did, in 1866, what Pope Francis is asking all religious to do today.
We recall Brother Paul Van Gerwen’s special place in the foundation of the Xaverian mission in America. For what he did we are grateful. We recall the example Paul and the founding Brothers left us. They were impelled by their love of Christ and were passionate about serving the poor through education.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jn 15:13
The Gospel’s imperative to love is not easy to fulfill, yet it is essential to the deep story of Saint Mary’s. Incidents in the early days of St. Mary’s reveal how the gospel inspired the special spirit that shaped the school.
In 1870 Brother Hubert arrived from Louisville to replace Brother Paul Van Gerwen. The school was hit by an epidemic of typhus of a most virulent strain. At the advice of the doctors, the stricken students were moved to tents on the hills surrounding the school. The Brothers, along with Passionist priests from Saint Joseph’s Monastery—Fathers Charles Lang, James Ryan, and Francis Murman—went beyond the call of duty to tend to the students. In his typical zeal, Brother Polycarp, a generous and self-sacrificing man, worked to the point of exhaustion tending to the students. Polycarp fell victim and died of typhus on May 31, 1870. We remember Polycarp’s generosity and example of self sacrifice with gratitude. Poverty, scarcity, and weak finances would plaque the school.
By 1878, Saint Mary’s also experienced success. The school was growing and its program of religious instruction, academic, and industrial training were well establish. Young men were completing St. Mary’s program and were ready to move on. The Brothers responded by opening Saint James Working Boys Home on the corner of High and Low Streets to provide a residence for those coming from Saint Mary’s who were able to get a job.
In 1919 a devastation would challenge the band of Brothers. At 4:00 in the afternoon on April 24 a fire started due to a spark from a coal stove. Fortunately, all the boys were at play. Everything the Brothers had worked for literally went up in smoke. Two fire fighters lost their lives. Faith tells us God is in everything we experience. In this tragedy, God’s compassion moved people to act.
At the time of the fire, there were 904 boys at Saint Mary’s. The religious congregations in the area graciously helped house four hundred children temporarily until they could be placed with families. Brothers of Mary bussed the students to Saint Martin’s. The Daughters of Charity housed some boys at Saint Agnes Hospital. The Passionists did the same at the monastery. The Brothers and three hundred boys were welcomed by the US Army at the barracks of Camp Holabird where they lived for six months while St. Mary’s was being rebuilt. We remember with gratitude the generosity and charity all the religious sisters, brothers, and priests who responded to help the children. We remember with gratitude the generous donations of the Catholic laity to help rebuild. Likewise, we remember with gratitude the support the US Government gave the school.
Part of Saint Mary’s deep story also deals with the deep stories of families. In doing some research about Saint Mary’s, the author ran across links to Ancestors.com. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as late as 2012, were seeking to know about Saint Mary’s. Was it a Catholic boarding school? An orphanage? A reform school? Why was their grandfather or great grandfather there? On a very human level, they were also seeking to know the deep story of their family. These individuals recounted touching discoveries of their family struggles. A death of a mother or father. The effects of poverty on the family that often led a family to send a son to the home. The unruly behavior of a child. Most were trying to answer a basic question. What was Saint Mary’s about? The truth is, Saint Mary’s was an orphanage. It was also a boarding school, accepting young men whose parents sent them there for an education. Saint Mary’s also received young men sent by the courts.
I believe the following assessment from Ms. Sybil Foster, Ph.D,, the Secretary of Child Welfare League of America, reflects the spirit of Saint Mary’s (The Child Welfare League spent four months reviewing Saint Mary’s program):
Elaborate modern buildings can give little to the children if there are no well equipped persons in charge of the daily living program. It is the atmosphere of the institution that is most important to the child’s success in social living.
St. Mary’s is fortunate at this point. House staff, or teachers or prefects, (the Brothers) already dedicated to a life of service to youth, bring these boys a loyalty and devotion difficult to find in groups of adults not so constituted. The adults here create a feeling of unity without petty jealousies and friction, again a reflection of their lives consecrated to obedience and service. Such unity is a great asset in dealing with children, especially if they come from homes torn by discord as is often the case of boys received for care at the institution.
The atmosphere at St. Mary’s is one of ease and friendly comradeship. There is order, discipline, but freedom from petty restrictions and repressions which is delightful. No averted eyes or furtive expressions are evident. There is a warmth of human response to the children by the adults. This undoubtedly fills a need in the emotional lives of these boys.
(Annual Report, 1937)
Brothers, it is through you that God desires to manifest his love
to the peoples of the world in these times and
to offer them the freedom of the children of God.
Throughout its deep story, Saint Mary’s was shaped by this foundational belief. Brother Dominic, known for his kindness, de-institutionalized Saint Mary’s by discarding the uniform and doing away with the cells used for discipline. His intent was to provide each boy with the experience of the home he, perhaps, never knew. In 1938, the Board voted only to accept boys sent by Court Order. By 1941, the enrollment declined to 250 boys. In 1949, the State of Maryland let the school know it would no longer financially support the boys sent by the courts. Brother Charles Wintergerst closed the school in 1950.
The spirit, however, lives not only in the story of the school’s most famous graduate, Babe Ruth, or in the skill of the Saint Mary’s Band, which John Philip Souza claimed was the best high school band he ever heard. The spirit resides in all those young men who learned that God loved them and that they had something of value to give our world. All were inspired to lead good moral lives. Many were inspired to the priesthood and religious life, including the Xaverian Brothers.
The following quote is from the Baltimore Post Examiner, author unknown. It appears sixty years after Saint Mary’s closed:
By now it is well known that the Catholics do education well. Despite their shortcomings, most recently with the decades long cover up of sexual abuse of children within their ranks, the faith has done some of the best outreach to the poorest of Americans. Like Boy’s Town in Nebraska, St. Mary’s Industrial was, in its time, just as good at imbuing a sense of purpose in each child.
We remember our Founder’s vision with gratitude. A small band of Brothers can witness, in a powerful way, to the workings of God.
Some Questions for Reflection
- What do you feel captured the imagination, mind, and heart of Brothers Paul Van Gerwen, Augustine, Polycarp and Sebastian to inspire their being a band of brothers in mission?
- What of Saint Mary’s spirit stands out to you? How would you describe Saint Mary’s spirit?
- What is capturing the imagination, mind, and heart of the Church today? (Church meaning the People of God.)
- How is the Church, our congregation, and our society at large responding to the needs of young people especially the poor?