As a School Sister of Notre Dame, I have worked since 1996 to educate and prepare women who are living in Baltimore’s inner city for meaningful careers. But, my story, Caroline Center’s story, really began 170 years ago.
When the School Sisters of Notre Dame came to the United States in 1847, the small band of sisters was invited to establish a school in Baltimore City that would educate the daughters of German immigrants coming to Baltimore at that time. A bishop, The Church, gave the sisters a small building on the property where Caroline Center stands today. Those smart, brave women started a school, Institute of Notre Dame, that still educates high-school age girls today; in an adjacent building is Caroline Center, where staff and I work providing education and employment training to women who are seeking positive change in their lives.
In 1847 and the years following, many ethnic-centered Catholic churches flourished in this neighborhood. There was the Irish church, St. John; the German churches, St. James and St. Michael; the Bohemian church, St. Wenceslaus; and so it went. In the nineteenth century and half of the twentieth, those churches nourished the souls and spirits of many Catholic Baltimoreans, and their adjoining parochial schools provided a solid education for children.
Over the years, as the demographics of the city changed, these schools and churches merged, closed, or were sold to other denominations for worship. And for many Catholics, their understanding of church changed or was modified, as well. Many still define The Church in terms of the Roman Catholic hierarchy with authority residing in the Pope, the bishops, and the clergy. Others have come to understand the church more expansively as the “people of God,” a definition put forth in the documents of Vatican II.
Most of us, myself included, struggle with straddling the line from day to day, and most days fall somewhere in-between these two different visions of church.
But when it comes to my work at Caroline Center, I do not straddle the line. While we certainly never ask for religious affiliation from our applicants, nor do we proselytize in any form, I am convinced we are church on Somerset Street. And the smart, brave women who come through our doors are most certainly people of God.
The women come with humble gifts and bold dreams; they come eager to learn and open to new skills and insights. They study, share, work hard; and, in 15 short weeks they acquire a professional certification to begin a career in the health field.
They also pray. They pray with tears of loss and forgiveness, psalms of joy and accomplishment. And, in the words of playwright and poet, Ntozake Shange, hymns of self-recognition: “I found God in myself and loved her, loved her fiercely.” The staff at Caroline Center mediate the prayers of the women. We hold them, and we hold them up when they pray. We recognize and applaud their gifts, support their dreams. We instruct, challenge, and cheer; and, we learn and grow from the insights they share with us. Together, we are this church on Somerset Street, the people of God.
Recently, I was reminded of yet another group who are part of the congregation that comprises this church on Somerset Street. On July 10, a vital, brilliant staff member walked out of our building and collapsed getting into her car. Her heart had failed. All other staff had gone home; trainees, too, were finished for the day. But there were the neighbors. One jumped from her car and called for help; another came out of his yard and began chest compression; a third went through her phone trying to find a family or colleague’s number to call. All three followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited until family arrived. They came to her memorial service a few days later, wrote notes of condolence, and made sure we had their numbers in case we needed them again. People of God, indeed, members of this church on Somerset Street.
I’m not always sure whether I find religion in my work or religion finds me. I’m not sure it matters. What does matter, my greatest prayer, is that every person who encounters this church on Somerset Street leaves it both whole and holy, better for having been here, and deeply aware that no matter the religion he or she professes, the God who lives in each of us is treasured and revered.
Caroline Center Executive Director Patricia McLaughlin, SSND, is the guest writer of "Church - The Way I See It." Her original blog post was initially published in The Huffington Post in September 2017.