The School Sisters of Notre Dame opened the Notre Dame of Maryland Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies on September 21, 1873 with 63 pupils. Early catalogs describe the school's then-rural Charles Street location as "the most desirable part of Baltimore County." From the school building atop the hill, students were afforded "magnificent views of the distant city and the Chesapeake Bay."
Notre Dame of Maryland's reputation for high academic standards and spiritual growth spread quickly.
AN ATTRACTIVE NOVELTY
At first the school was considered an "attractive novelty." So many came to see it that a special time-Thursday afternoons-was designated for visitors. Gas-lights dotted the campus, and horse-drawn carriages filled the drive.
Still, for the sisters, establishing this new school was a struggle. Notre Dame survived a delayed opening because of construction difficulties, the financial panic of 1873 and a fire that destroyed the gas house a month after the school opening. Not long after that, the building showed signs of faulty construction. Said Sr. M. Francis Regis Carton, SSND provincial leader during NDP's centenary celebration, "Although legal problems, continued litigation, frustration, disappointment and misunderstanding attended the beginnings of this school, the faith dimension was always present and the venture was blessed."
The sisters had first arrived in Baltimore from Bavaria, Germany in 1847, determined to educate the children of German immigrants. Led by Mother Theresa of Jesus (Caroline Gerhardinger), foundress of the order, they took over three Redemptorist parish schools in downtown Baltimore. The SSNDs established their first convent and girls' school, the Institute of Notre Dame, on Aisquith St. next door to St. James Church. When IND became overcrowded, the order established a Notre Dame of Maryland. Sister Ildephonse was its foundress.
Notre Dame of Maryland's reputation for high academic standards and spiritual growth spread quickly. Most of its students were boarders. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first commencement; his niece, Bessie Sharp, was a Notre Dame student. Later, Cardinal James Gibbons established an office at Notre Dame, where clergymen from all over the world came to visit him. These early marketing efforts brought even more students to the Charles Street campus.
LIFE AT NOTRE DAME
The sisters governed students' conduct with strict regulations. Students were not permitted to leave campus, except for vacation or illness. The uniform code specified black dresses of cashmere or wool, alpaca skirts, linen blouses and aprons, and a white muslin dress, white sash and white gloves for graduation. All letters were inspected. One student, in fact, was expelled for writing to a boy attending a nearby college.
Life was even more austere for the sisters. They served as teachers, disciplinarians, housekeepers and cooks, devoting themselves to God and the welfare of the students. Convent life allowed them no ordinary privileges of the layperson.
Few realize that Notre Dame's preparatory school existed for more than 20 years before the College of Notre Dame. In response to the high school graduates' requests in the early 1880s, the School Sisters of Notre Dame expanded NDM's curriculum with two years of post-secondary education. This led to the charter of the college on April 2, 1896.
From then on, the four-year college and the 12-year preparatory school flourished on the same campus. About Notre Dame, the Baltimore Sunday Herald wrote, "Few institutions of learning are better known throughout this country than Notre Dame of Maryland, the famous college for women and preparatory school for girls under the supervision and instruction of the School Sisters of Notre Dame." The article, published August 28, 1900, included considerable praise.
Around the same time, a strange sight appeared in elementary grade classrooms-boys. The sisters began to admit them, it is believed, at the urging of Cardinal Gibbons for the convenience of some Baltimore families. In more than one school catalog, the sisters assigned girls' names to the boys. In another, they penciled in "B" above each boy's name. By the late 1920s, however, the school was once again all-female.
Notre Dame celebrated its gala jubilee in 1924. Highlights included a special liturgy, the May Procession and the dedication of an Italian marble statue of Our Lady. Its mission remained to be "…the cultivation of the mind, the heart and the will of each individual student in accordance with Catholic ideals and principles."
In 1927, a new building was erected on campus. LeClerc Hall housed gymnasium, pool, bowling alleys and auditorium. The building was named for Alix LeClerc, the first member of a sixteenth-century French order that in 1833 would become the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Two years later, the first Gym Meet took place in LeClerc Hall. Student accommodations did not expand as enrollment grew, so the Boarding Division closed in 1939. From then on, Notre Dame was known as "a day school for girls."
In 1943, Sister Mary Virginia became headmistress. Several new traditions began during her tenure including the grand Soiree (mid 1940s), the Father-Daughter Dinner (1955) and a two-night Gym Meet. Among other things, she introduced a new gym uniform style, the blue tunic still worn by students today.
FINDING A NEW HOME
Sister Mary Virginia also engineered the preparatory school's biggest change, its move from Charles Street to Hampton Lane. The relocation was necessary for two reasons: accrediting agencies recommended a separation between the college and the prep school, and both struggled for classroom space. According to a 1959 newspaper report, the space shortage was so acute that the prep school could admit only one of every nine applicants.
Except for those last years on Charles Street perhaps, demand for acceptance to Notre Dame has never been greater than it is today. Especially appealing to prospective families are the rigorous academic program, the spiritual dimension, the leadership opportunities, the college guidance program, and the 14-sport interscholastic athletic program. Add the nurturing environment that makes each girl feel at home, and it's easy to understand Notre Dame's popularity. Alumnae like to see that traditions like Gym Meet, Ring Day, Big and Little Sisters and Field Day are still in place.
A LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP
The school's continued success, however, reflects the insight and leadership of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, starting with Sister Mary Virginia's selection of the Hampton Lane site. Its 64 acres offered woods and a scenic hilltop setting similar to Charles Street. Governor Theodore McKeldin, Cardinal Shehan and other dignitaries attended the 1959 groundbreaking. The word about the new Notre Dame campus was nothing but positive.
As construction progressed Sister Mary Virginia often visited the site, wearing boots beneath her habit and a hard hat. She insisted on the stone exterior and thimbleberry pink trim inside. Classes began at Notre Dame Preparatory School on September, 14, 1960. The sisters lived at school for a time until their convent was built next door.
Over the next decade, Notre Dame moved forward with the times. The school responded to changes in the Catholic Church brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The most strict student regulations, including silence in the halls, fell away. When Sister Mary Virginia left to supervise the establishment of Archbishop Keough High School, Sister Doris Ann succeeded her, with Sister Ellis taking over shortly after.
Sister Ellis championed curricular changes. She implemented the phasing system, grouping students in major subjects according to their abilities and interests. She expanded the curriculum, dropping home economics in favor of additional academic courses. Classrooms and a language lab were added. Photography became an elective.
At Notre Dame and in Catholic schools nationwide, lay teachers started to outnumber religious faculty because fewer men and women were choosing religious life, and many of those who had were leaving their orders.
In 1973, Notre Dame celebrated its centennial. Two years later, a social service program was instituted. This elective program, encouraging students to serve those less fortunate in the Baltimore community, became a model for other schools. It remains in place today.
Sister Helen Marie took over as headmistress in 1979. She had spent her entire professional career at Notre Dame, serving as a biology teacher, Athletic Association moderator and administrator. Sister Helen Marie made several key changes, including adding development and public relations professionals to the school's staff, implementing the 1982 decision to phase out the lower school, and seeing the school through incorporation and establishment of the Board of Trustees.
Sister Ellis returned to NDP in 1987 as principal, overseeing all matters of curriculum and teaching. She and Sister Helen Marie made a dynamic team. Sister Ellis fostered those concerns most important to her, including social justice projects and professional development for teachers. It was she who inspired NDP's sister-school relationship the with Ignacio Ellacuria community school in rural El Salvador.
FOUNDATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
By 1992, NDP had entered its first capital campaign, which provided funding for the construction of the Mother Philemon Doyle Library, as well as computer, science and art labs. The endowment grew from $400,000 to $1.5 million and named scholarship funds to 21.
In 1997, Sister Christine Mulcahy assumed the post of headmistress upon Sister Helen Marie's retirement. During her eight-year tenure, she oversaw the largest physical expansion to the campus since its relocation in 1960. Campus renovations and additions included two new instructional wings, a state-of-the-art Sports and Fitness Center, expansive athletic fields, and a campus-wide technology network connecting all students and teachers to the Internet. In addition, the school became a wireless laptop high school in 2003.
Following Sister Christine in 2005, Sister Patricia McCarron becoming the ninth headmistress of the school. In the years that she has been headmistress, Sister Patricia has overseen remarkable growth at NDP, including expanding academic and extra-curricular programs, implementing the school's new strategic plan, increasing the annual fund , and continuing to raise the community's awareness of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and their commitment to service and justice in our world. In 2013, Sister Patricia was named to the Daily Record's "Circle of Excellence" for her three-time inclusion among Maryland's Top 100 Women.
As it was in the 1880s, college preparation is still a main objective at Notre Dame. All students continue their education after graduation. Typically, they apply to a wide range of schools according to their varied interests and aptitudes. Notre Dame's college counselors and teachers help students earn acceptances to the colleges they choose.
Notre Dame's top scholar-athletes have an added advantage. They are recruited for their athletic talent and recognized for their academic achievement. That's why Notre Dame alumnae have appeared on team rosters at Yale, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Virginia, to name a few.
Students' achievements also earn them college scholarships and major awards. For instance, nearly $23 million was awarded to 90% of the Class of 2016. Students won grants for academic achievement as well as talent in art, choral and instrumental music, photography, and writing. Eleven students from the Class of 2016 were signed to Division I teams. Recent NDP graduates have claimed two of the most important awards given to Baltimore area high school students: the McCormick Unsung Hero Award and the Anne Lindsey Otenasek Service Award.
In 2012, Notre Dame Prep received recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School for Excellence and a University of Maryland Top Engineering Source School. In addition, NDP has been named a Baltimore Sun Top Workplace for five consecutive years.