The following is a guest post by Pat McLaughlin, SSND, Executive Director at the Caroline Center.
Caroline Center offers a holistic education and career skills training program as nursing assistants and pharmacy technicians to capable women residents of Baltimore City who are ready for change - women who would most benefit from the program and would not otherwise have this opportunity. Caroline Center's mission is to empower each woman to reach the fullness of her potential so that she can create a future of hope for herself and her family.
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 German immigrants coming to Baltimore at that time. A bishop gave the sisters a small building at the corner of Aisquith and Somerset Streets in East Baltimore. 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 provide education and employment training to women who are seeking a way out of poverty.
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 those two 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 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. They sing hymns of self-recognition. In the words of playwright and poet, Ntozake Shange, “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, cheer, and 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 of this year, a vital, brilliant staff member walked out of our building and collapsed at 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 compressions, and 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. They are 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.
The ICJS Entrepreneurs Lunchtime Series (ELS) brings together local entrepreneurial leaders to discuss the role that religion and ethics can play in building healthy communities. In this initiative, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about religion and ethics in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome and lift up this diversity of perspectives.