January 6, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Taught by Their Own, in Plain Sight: The Irish Children

Difficult times call for creative methods and approaches, as we all have seen in these challenging days. Irish Catholic families that sought to educate their children had the laws of the land to contend with, as the Penal Laws imposed by British authorities made it a capital offense to educate children in the way a family thought best. School masters who chose to run their schools within the traditions of Catholic education had a price on their heads.

Innovative methods and settings were the cure for Irish families. While many who raised families in the West of Ireland could not spare their children for education, some sent them to hidden schools, out of sight from those who persecuted their kind. Hedge and Dune Schools were places for teachers and their students to gather and learn using methods such as Froebel Gifts. First level learning used balls of yarn in primary colors, teaching kindergarten-age children different objects, movements, and space and time variations.

Elements and Elaboration

As Baltimore’s massive influx of survivors of the Great Hunger occurred, the need for single sex education became apparent to the Archbishop and several pastors. St. Patrick Parish in Fell’s Point reached out to Galway’s “Brothers of St. Patrick” for help in their Manual Labor Farm in 1847, while the “Christian Brothers De La Salle” were pursued by the Archbishop and other Churches.

These Brothers were a French order which educated boys of modest means, in the vernacular of their country (rather than Latin). They had established themselves in Canada.

Two Brothers arrived at St. Peter the Apostle Church School in September 1849, joining the Sisters of Charity who continued to teach 130 girls. They immediately set to the task of transforming the church hall into an appropriate setting for segregated education, with two Brothers handling 200 boys ....in two classes. Voices of girls, teachers, and street traffic made for a constant din of noise in the hall with low ceilings, poor lighting and ventilation, and no classroom walls.

The situation was impossible, and forces gathered to raise funds for the building of a Male School across the street...a two-story structure. Chesapeake Bay excursions were among the methods used by the Parish to pay off the debt incurred by the building project.

Several Brothers educated the boys in turn during the early years. The Brothers ended their commute from their Calvert Hall residence in 1878 when a modest home was purchased near St. Peter’s Male School for their use. Four teaching Brothers, and another who served as chief cook and bottle washer lived there. Teachers were paid $350 per annum, with the cook making a mere $200.

Brother Leonard became Director in 1876. He was born as Patrick Brennan in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny on May 14, 1847....at the height of the horrors of the Great Hunger. His pious family included Christian Brothers, Sisters of Charity Nuns and a brother who served as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York.

School Directors typically taught the most advanced, “1st” class” as well, and developed close relationships with many of their students. Brother Leonard was particularly gifted in this way, and developed the boys both intellectually and spiritually during his time at the School.

Pupil counts at the Male School increased consistently in the late 1870’s and 1880’s, growing to 340 by 1881. Parish funding of the free school became a challenge.

“Entertainments” were held each year as fundraisers, sometimes at nearby Hollins Hall; books and desks were purchased for a student body that had increased to 437 boys by 1882. A third Floor was added to the Male School building, which allowed for an assembly room to be part to the floor plan.

The school consistently shined in its bi-annual examinations by the Order, and some referred to the school as a “Second Novitiate” due to its academic and spiritual rigor. Linear and Ornamental Drawing was added to the curriculum, and examples of the boy’s work were put on public display.

Additional classes were added in 1883 and 1885. Facilities were being outgrown again, and the youngest boys were taught in a separate building, and eventually by the Sisters of Mercy, who often taught the youngest boys within a Male School.

Brother Leonard led the efforts to create the “La Salle Perseverance Society”, an alumni association of sorts for the boys of the parish. It was created to help boys maintain their faith in their developing years after graduation from St. Peter’s School. Members supported the school through participation in school and church events and by holding fundraisers of their own...sometimes at large secular halls in the city, where 1,200 were in attendance.

Brother Leonard included the Society in 1886’s closing exercises for the boy’s academic year, awarding alumni for their perseverance in the faith under full view of the 450 pupils of the day. The pomp and circumstance of the occasion included a rousing rendition of the song, “Home Rule for Ireland”.

Brother Leonard invited the Irish Land League chapter to be part of the school’s closing exercises in 1890. The League representatives presented awards for both Orthography and Home Studies to graduating students.

Leonard was also an advocate for the boys as they transitioned into productive citizens. He visited several large businesses in the area, including the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to secure clerical positions for his scholars. St. Peter’s graduates were in demand, and he saw to it that the boys would prove to be excellent employees. He also assured that his young men were faithful to their religious duties. A visit to the Railroad in later years was a great example, when six of his former pupils gathered to greet him in the B & O offices. Once prompted by Brother Leonard, all six reached into their pockets and produced a rosary.

The School was ranked as the top Catholic Male School in the city, and had a maximum of eight teaching Brothers.

1891 was a dramatic year for the school. An 8th class was added, and every desk filled. The faculty and staff was under a lot of pressure. The increase of teaching Brothers was obvious to many, but not all, and negotiation began between the Brothers and Pastor McColgan to balance the need for staffing, and the funding it required.

Calvert Hall 's School had remarkable development as well, and a new building was ready to open in 1891. Brother Leonard was made their Director, to the dismay of St. Peter’s Parish.

The relationship between the Parish and the Christian Brothers De La Salle ended at the completion of the 1891-1892 school year. Sisters of Mercy took over the teaching of boys, while not yet making the school a co-ed institution.

Brother Leonard led Calvert Hall for two years. His career continued at several other institutions, including in Philadelphia. He passed away in 1915, and the Mass of Christian Burial was said by his brother, Father Joseph Brennan.

The Male and Female Schools of the parish eventually became part of a large, co-ed School run by the Sisters of Mercy, who taught the children of the neighborhood for 113 years. The school closed in 1968, but the building is still standing.

Special thanks to Brother Joseph Grabenstein FSC, De La Salle Christian Brothers for his contributions to this issue.

Photograph courtesy of Sharon Knecht

Women Religious as Educators

West Baltimore’s Irish Catholic community petitioned the Archbishop in 1838, asking that he establish a school for their children. The Poppleton Street Schoolhouse opened a year later, a co-ed school staffed by lay teachers and the Sisters of Charity, who commuted each day from Paca Street. They continued educating rairoader's children and others once St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church was established in 1842. Once a Church building was completed, they moved the school into the church basement, without the benefit of dividing walls and little in the way of heating and ventilation.

​Both boys and girls were taught there, in numbers that began to overwhelm the faculty, and the parish sought to place a new model of instruction for their hundreds of pupils.

The Sisters of Mercy, an order begun in Dublin, arrived in 1855 to take over the parishes' free Female School, and added an Academy for those who could pay tuition and receive a more advanced curriculum. Neighborhood girls came by the hundreds, and some who were being raised by their illiterate, "famine survivor" parents were high achievers, including Ann C. Liberty. Her mother had died in childbirth, and father John was a horse-and-cart man. He was the brother of Sarah Feeley, of 918 Lemmon St.

Ann graduated from St. Peter’s School and became a Sisters of Mercy nun, now known as Sister Mary Rita Liberty. She served as a nurse, teacher and college professor during her career, eventually returning to her alma mater.

Sister Mary Rita Liberty (pictured) taught at St. Peter’s Female School for several years.

She passed away at St. Gregory’s Convent on November 25, 1923.

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