This coming week marks two very special anniversaries for The New Century School: Building North turns 124 years old on September 29th and Building South turns 87 on October 4th! To honor these occasions, let’s explore the history of these special places—how they came to be and what they meant and mean to Fell’s Point and Baltimore.
We’re lucky they’re still here, by the way. In 2006, developers planned to raze most of the site occupied by St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church (Building North) and its satellite buildings (including Building South) to make way for condominiums. Protestors and developers managed to reach a compromise that allowed the condos to go up in other parts of the church grounds (see photo; the former St. Stanislaus school situated behind the church, the former parish hall nestled in the back right corner of the church’s parking lot, and the former friary on the corner of Ann and Aliceanna Streets), while the former church* itself and its adjacent former convent were preserved.
For the entire 20th century, St. Stan’s served the Polish Catholic community of Fell’s Point, finally closing in 2000 due to declining parishionership. As Baltimore’s first Polish Catholic Church, St. Stan’s was a symbol of community and ethnic identity to many and a landmark well worth putting up a fight for. Fell’s Point was a hub of Polish life in the late 1800s, offering employment in canning and lumber to an influx of immigrants. Because church activity pervaded every aspect of Polish culture, establishing a church was one of their first priorities, and the St. Stanilaus Society set to work raising the necessary funds. (The cost of the land in addition to erecting a church upon it amounted to $28,000.) They named the church after Stanislaus Koska, a 16th-century Polish saint who walked 350 miles to Rome to become a monk and died shortly after at only 18 years old.
Father Peter Koncz from Wilno, Poland was the first pastor but was murdered in 1888, possibly because of political turmoil brewing within the Polish Catholic community. His replacement was Father John Rodowicz, who ordered the first church torn down because of size (church membership was over 3,500) and lack of structural integrity, which he replaced with the stalwart St. Stan’s we know today. Several pastorates later, one Father Alphonse Figlewski ordered construction of a convent, which was blessed on October 4th, 1926 and conducted by the Felician Sisters.
Fast-forward to 1993, and the convent became Mother Seton Academy, a Roman Catholic tuition-free middle school for indigent 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders. The academy was named for Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. The former principal of the academy, Sister Mary Bader, said of the school, “The school is not just about academics, but also about the children’s social and emotional needs.” Thus, from the very beginning, TNCS has occupied a place imbued with the values it continues to embody.
When the church closed in 2000, the academy wanted to stay put and perhaps expand into the church itself. The church administration who owned the land were considering commercial development for the satellite buildings, but leaving the academy building alone. For the other satellite buildings, they were hoping for adaptive reuse, but structural engineers could not approve those plans based on the extent of disrepair. Other ideas included turning the church into a museum with a gift and coffee shop and demolishing all other buildings, including the academy.
After years of negotiations, mostly contentious, the church and the convent buildings were purchased for $400,000 by Mother Seton Academy in 2006. As late as 2005, the future of the site looked very different from how it has turned out. Then plans were to demolish the convent, school, parish hall, and friary, leave “Four-Bay Mansion” (circa 1795 captain’s mansion that fronted Aliceanna) intact, and build condominiums with underground parking. Ultimately, the Fell’s Point Preservation Society held sway and alternative plans were made, giving us our beautiful school buildings and grounds. In 2009, St. Stan’s was officially protected by the City of Baltimore’s Commission for Architectural and Historic Preservation (CHAP). CHAP status prevented the church from being razed but also imposed numerous building restrictions that proved too many for the original condo developer.
As for Mother Seton Academy, they closed their Ann St. doors on the final day of the school year, June 5, 2009, only to reopen in a bigger, newly renovated building at 2215 Greenmount Avenue, where they continue to thrive. Their legacy also lives on in TNCS, which opened the following year and is another school devoted to fulfilling all aspects of its students’ lives. Building North followed 1 year later, giving us pre-primary classrooms and The Lingo Leap as well as Sanctuary Bodyworks (not affiliated with the school). TNCS maintains continuity with the history of its setting, but also moves us forward into a new time, a new century. TNCS also cares deeply about the surrounding community. Knowing a little more about our historical and cultural context will help us participate in and embrace this neighborhood to our fullest extent.
*The church building was never slated for demolition, but its Byzantine interior would have been.