Baltimore’s Catholic parishes were education centers for arriving immigrant communities. Their grammar schools were part of German, Czech, Polish and Irish neighborhoods. An eighth-grade education was inexpensive and readily available to those who could persevere and resist the call of working life and its measure of immediate rewards. Many who were not inclined towards the disciplines of the classroom might have found working life more appealing. Leaving school and taking a job was often a necessity for some whose families struggled financially. Salaries came home to mother, and a bit of an allowance gave these young working men and women a bit of solace as they completed yet another working week.
Teachers were usually Nuns and Christian Brothers who gave of themselves sacrificially to instill the “three R’s” in their young charges. Pupils were often from immigrant families who did not have educational opportunities in the old country. A remarkable opportunity presented itself to families within Baltimore’s ethnic communities: a solid education became available for children whose ancestors had endured centuries of hard physical labor. Their learning experiences brought forth many new possibilities for these young Americans.
Some continued past the basic grammar school education available to all and entered more advanced levels, preparing themselves for careers that required greater fluency in writing, grammar and penmanship. Office skills were essential to the development of major industry, and a method of instilling these skills was added to the educational years of many.
Some young women did finish their eight years of grammar school, but still found themselves applying for jobs doing piecework for local firms. Such was the plight of many a young lady at St. Peter’s Female School in West Baltimore. Nuns and priests poured themselves into their education, but many walked out of their graduation ceremony and traveled barely feet and yards into the front doors of Lion Brothers, an embroidery firm that had moved into the neighborhood just after the great Baltimore Fire of 1904 (note the church pillars just beyond the truck). It was good steady work, and I am sure they were glad to have it, but educators found it a bit disconcerting to see their years of secular and religious education be all for naught, to a certain degree. These young women could have done that sort of work without graduating at all.
It was time for a new strategy to be implemented, and parishes followed the model of some secular educational institutions by creating Commercial Schools for their graduates. These added a few years to a grammar school education, and students (often young women) learned the skills needed to help run a business office in a growing dynamic city. Skills included taking dictation, filing, typing, basic bookkeeping and various other tasks that were essential in a modern office setting.
St. Peter’s Male and Female Schools held their graduation day on June 13, 1922 and included the Commercial Department in the day’s pomp and ceremony. Fourteen that had done a few extra years of study were prepared for office life, and Pastor James A. Smyth (pictured, top center) congratulated them as well as 28 Grammar School graduates for a job well done.
Where would all this education lead them? There must be 42 answers to that question, but one young lady who completed her time in the grammar department came right back in Fall Semester, 1922 to begin the Commercial course herself. She was Elizabeth Agnes Herbig (2nd row from top; 3rd from right), who added three years of education to prepare herself for a position nearby. She must have been known to all in the parish; baptized at St. Peter’s on March 8, 1908, oldest daughter of ironworker John G. Herbig and Mary Agnes Kelly (a native of County Roscommon, Ireland). Their family home in 1910 was two blocks from church and school, where they shared a rowhouse with the Callahan family…twelve in the home. No matter; her parents were literate and assured that she would receive a solid education as well.
Young Elizabeth had a home life that followed a pattern for many immigrant families. Her father had grown up in a home where six salaries came into the house, and large families stayed together with the hope of accomplishing financial success. Such was the pattern for the Herbig family in later years as well.
Her completion of Grammar School was capped with three years in Commercial School, and Elizabeth became a railroader herself! The 1930 U.S. Census tells us that she was a railroad clerk, and brought her salary home to Mom and Dad, who had moved to a better neighborhood. They owned their home, and even had a radio; really…that was a question on the Census form…good for them. Her career developed, and by 1940 Elizabeth was making $1,100 a year as a bookkeeper for a banking firm. Her birth family continued living together during the difficult years of the Great Depression, bringing 4-5 salaries home to keep the family together.
Who knew that the Commercial Schools would bring young women into office life at the railroad, where so many young men made a living as well? They had been educated at the parish’s Male School under the tutelage of the Christian Brothers de la Salle and were periodically checked on by Pastor Edward McColgan in the 1880’s to be sure they were providing good service to their employers.
Other young women of the era took advantage of even greater opportunities. The Female School was run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Dublin-based order. They had established Mount St. Agnes College, in the Mount Washington area of North Baltimore. It attracted young women who were from successful families, and they received a more advanced education than what was available in more modest parish schools.
Mary Ellen Nolan (in group picture, 2nd row from bottom…2nd from right) became one of the first who joined the more well-heeled girls at Mount St. Agnes College, becoming a student there in the Fall of 1922. Her attendance was made possible by the creation of an alumnae scholarship fund established in 1919, awarded after a competitive examination. The scholarship made for a huge change at the elite boarding and day school, located in Mount Washington: a suburb of Baltimore. Typical schools of their type might have had 10-15 girls per class, as Mount St. Agnes did prior to the scholarship becoming available to scholars from somewhat more modest families. A scholarship was worth $3,000 and was used for both tuition and board. Mary did well and graduated from Mount Saint Agnes College on June 4, 1926. Her class of 35 young women received their diplomas from Governor Albert Ritchie.
There must have been a feeling of satisfaction among educators who sought the best for students within their parishes. St. Peter’s parish was especially dedicated to the education of their youth. Poppleton Street Catholic Schoolhouse had been established even before the parish came into existence (1842). Founding pastor Edward McColgan, a native of County Donegal, brought in Nuns from Pittsburgh and Christian Brothers from Canada to transform thousands of immigrant Irish children into literate and contributing members of a major city.
I am sure that not all had quite the success of Elizabeth Agnes Herbig and Mary Ellen Nolan, but the hard work and perseverance of many like them established a foundation of success for generations to come. Perhaps that is your story; we’d love to hear from you if one of the young graduates pictured above is an ancestor of yours!
Brother Joseph Grabenstein, Archivist of the Legacy Baltimore District, De La Salle Christian Brothers.
Costello, Sister Mary Loretto. The Sisters of Mercy of Maryland 1855-1930. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1931).
Mim Quaid and the Nolan Family