February 1, 2024
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Remembering the Talented Women of the Holbein Family

Our research of the modest parish neighborhood which surrounds the Irish Railroad Workers Museum has brought forth many talented women and their stories. Usually from families who lived in simple rowhouses,they were raised in an atmosphere of accomplishment. Education was the work of all American children, and female teachers were the models and examples for many who aspired to so much more than their ancestors could dream of. Such was the case of the young women of the Holbein family.

They were descendants from Tipperary Irish, and many who lived nearby had come from places like the market town of Nenagh due to chain migration. Relatives brought over others when they could, and most lived nearby in an Irish parish that was dedicated in 1844. Of course, they came for a reason: the hope and opportunities that could be found for all, and especially by the girls and young women who struggled under a system of subjugation and powerlessness...at various levels of intensity.

Women who hoped for marriage and family had their own struggles in Ireland, as the mean average age for marriage was 26-27 years old. Irish marriage rates were the lowest in Europe, and families often took the dowry they received from a daughter-in-law’s family and used it to marry off just one of their own daughters. Younger sisters were particularly unable to marry, and immigrating to America was often the best answer.

Those who sought more intellectual pursuits had their own struggles in Ireland. Approximately 66% of Irish were illiterate in the years just prior to the Great Hunger, with males being a bit more likely to receive a bit of education. Ireland’s far western counties were even more populated by the uneducated, and the young women who were raised there had few options.

The frequency of young women entering religious life was uncommon before the Great Hunger, and the nation held one Nun for every 7,000 Catholics. Moving to America, and its thousands of parish schools, made a lot of sense for young women who actually emigrated from Ireland at a higher rate than men.

Several religious orders were formed in Ireland, including the Sisters of Mercy. The Order was established by Sister Catherine McAuley in Dublin in 1831, and first arrived in America at Pittsburgh. Theirs was an active order: not a contemplative one, and "women religious" focused on their vibrant faith, followed by teaching and nursing. The order recruited many of their novices in Ireland itself, and many took advantage of the opportunity to begin meaningful lives of service in America. They served as nurses and educators in boomtowns such as Baltimore.

The life patterns and example of Nuns among young parish girls was a huge factor in the development of those who had recently immigrated as well. Those born in or had emigrated to America viewed education as a natural right. Catholic families usually sent their children to Catholic schools, staffed by highly educated Nuns, and daughters usually viewed them as the smartest, most capable women in the community. Many decided to follow in their footsteps.

They lived lives in service to others, and most frequently educated females only. Some orders taught young boys, but most had a limit on what age level their male students could be. Teaching young women was their priority, and parish female schools were a fertile field to develop both prospective candidates for their order and also capable workers for the extended community, where some women would find their place and purpose. Such was the experience of the Holbein family: descendants of Tipperary Irish who thrived in a parish dedicated to the railroading families of West Baltimore.


A new Church was established as a direct response to a modest school’s success in West Baltimore. The Poppleton Street Catholic Schoolhouse, a wooden structure established in 1838, was administered initially by the Sisters of Charity and lay teachers, with the facility being managed by James White, an Irish grocer in the neighborhood. The modest building was quickly outgrown, and the school's success was noticed by the Archdiocesan leaders. A new parish in West Baltimore made sense, and the school moved into the basement of the brand-new St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (photo above) located at S. Poppleton and Hollins Sts. It was dedicated in 1844 by Bishop John Hughes of New York, and Rev. Edward McColgan served there faithfully for 56 years.

Early families of the parish included the Kellys and Flannerys of County Tipperary. The Holbeins arrived on the scene in the 1870’s, and Mary E. Kelly married Francis L. Holbein at St. Peter’s on January 3, 1878.  Francis began working life as a wagon driver, following the pattern of other men of the family. Children came early and often, and six attended St. Peter’s Parish Schools and the more advanced Female Academy from their rowhomes on S. Arlington Ave. and W. Pratt Street.


Among the Holbein scholars were:

M. Genevieve Holbein, born in 1880. She shined brightly among her Female Academy classmates, being valedictorian of 1898, just before beginning within the order of the Sisters of Mercy as a postulant. She was received fully into the order just five months later, entering the Convent’s Chapel in full bridal array, as a reflection of her spiritual position as a bride of Christ.

She took the name of Mary Clotilde Holbein, and was a career educator who was particularly gifted in the areas of dramatics, public displays and performances. She taught at several parish schools and high schools, including three stints at her beloved St. Peter’s. She passed away in 1954. 

May Holbein was born into the family in 1883. She did well at the parish school, and received a premium for “Excellence in Studies” at her 8th grade graduation ceremony in 1898. She used her talents in a different way: becoming the family “railroader” by serving as a clerk and telephone operator for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. May eventually became the Chief Operator of their telephone exchange at Camden Station, operating 63 phones herself.

She led a group of four who managed 199 phone lines, and was considered kind and attentive as she interacted with thousands of officials and employees of the Road. She passed away in 1906, and is remembered today with a Memorial Brick at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum. It was placed there by her descendant, Kathleen Garvey Norris.


Teresa Julia Holbein, pictured below, was born into the family in 1886, and followed her older sister into the Sisters of Mercy order in 1905. Becoming Sister Mary Hildegard Holbein, she traveled down two different vocational tracks: both as an educator and as a nurse. Sister Holbein did several stints as a teacher at St. Peter’s Female School.


Baltimore’s 375-bed Mercy Hospital was her major workplace, and she served there as a Nurse and Instructor for 43 years. Her time was interrupted dramatically in 1943 by a placement at St. Martin de Porres Maternity Hospital in Mobile, Alabama: a modest five-bed facility where she served as supervisor, midwife, and “chief cook and bottlewasher” for five years. Sister Hildegard’s experiences there enriched her life, and she encouraged other Nuns to become “pioneer workers” in similar settings, giving care to “Miniatures of Christ in Ebony”.  She passed away in 1977.


Each of these women thrived in their chosen work, and are dramatic examples of how the Irish experience in Baltimore, and a young nation, allowed those who were once part of a subjugated people to pursue and fulfill their potential.


 St. Peter’s School, circa 1922. It was the parish's third separate school building, and was dedicated in 1917 as a coed school. It remained open until 1968. The building itself, at 22 S. Poppleton Street, has been marvelously restored in recent years by the University of Maryland.


Holbein Family in the 1920’s, including Rev. Godfrey Holbein. He died as a martyr in China (1929).



The earliest Convent of the Immaculate Conception, shown in later years. It was originally purchased for the Sisters of Mercy by Emily Caton McTavish, granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrolton. The building was located next to the Church on South Poppleton Street, and was home for 25 teaching Nuns and staff in 1900.


 Camden Station: part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad System. It contained both a passenger depot and office space.




We send our thanks, and give credit to these important sources used in this writing:


Costello, Sister Mary Loretto, M.A. Sisters of Mercy of Maryland. Saint Louis: Herder Book Co., 1931.

Diner, Hasla R. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women of the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Kennedy, Liam Paul S. Ell, E.M. Crawford and L.A. Clarkson. Mapping the Great Irish Famine. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1999.

King, Kay. St. Peter the Apostle Church Marriage Records, 1842-1918. Lewes, Delaware: Colonial Roots, 2009.


Baltimore Sun

Garvey, Holbein, Kelly and Norris Family

Maryland Center for History and Culture

Nancy Van Horn

Sisters of Mercy

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