Photos by Jen Rynda; story by Heather Norris
For the nuns at All Saints Sisters of the Poor convent on Hilton Avenue, every day is like living in a history book.
In the morning, the women wake up in their small, sparsely furnished cells inside the nearly century-old convent building.
Between services in the convent’s chapel, they make rosaries, hand-craft prayer cards and tend to the numerous gardens located throughout more than 90 acres the order owns at the end of Hilton Avenue, in the middle of the Patapsco Valley State Park.
Although the convent and its residents have been a staple in the Catonsville community since World War I, it wasn’t always that way.
The order was founded in the mid-nineteenth century in England as an Anglican organization devoted to caring for the country’s orphans, said Sister Barbara Ann, who has lived at the priory since the 1960s.
By the 1870s, she said, they had answered a call from the late Rev. Joseph Richey, of the Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore, to come to Baltimore and help care for the city’s underprivileged youth.
The nuns built a convent in downtown Baltimore on Eutaw Street, across the street from Mount Calvary Church. They quickly established schools and centers to help Baltimore’s orphans, Sister Barbara Ann said.
As part of their work, she said, the nuns staffed a “fresh air camp” in the Orange Grove Area of Catonsville for inner city children to experience the outdoors. The camp was owned by a group of upper-class women who enlisted the help of the nuns to run it, she said.
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The society women eventually grew tired of operating the program and decided to give the land, and the old wooden-framed building, over to the nuns entirely, Sister Barbara Ann said. After turning down the offer from the women twice, the nuns decided the third offer was a divine sign that they should take the property, and they relocated to the woods of Catonsville in 1917, she said.
About a year after the nuns moved in, their wooden building was destroyed in a fire, according to Sister Christina, another member of the order.
For two years, with the help of areal residents, the nuns collected stones from the surrounding forest and fields and rebuilt the convent using the local material. By the early 1920s, construction was complete and the order’s members had moved back into their Catonsville home, Sister Christina said.
By the standards of religious tradition, a lot has changed at the convent since the 1920s
The nuns no longer operate a school or a shelter for orphaned children. Instead, they help support the Joseph Richey House, a hospice center in downtown Baltimore that accepts the terminally ill who have no caretakers. They are accepted, regardless of their ability to pay.
In 2014, the hospice merged with Gilchrist Hospice Care. But Sister Barbara Ann said the nuns still raise funds for the center.
In 2009, the sisters made headlines when they left the Episcopal Church in order to join the Catholic Church.
The nuns operated a farm, harvesting fruits and vegetables, when Sister Barbara Ann first joined, she said.
“I will tell you, there is nothing as itchy” as harvesting wheat, she said.
While the women harvested some of the produce themselves, a lot of the work was done by a local farmer. When the farmer passed away, she said, the farm fields were replaced by sprawling fields of grass and smaller hobby gardens.
Days at the convent today are quiet. Runners and walkers pass through on a regular basis, Sister Barbara Ann said, but the convent’s location, about three-quarters of a mile from its closest neighbor and surrounded by the state park, gives it some seclusion.
In May, the nuns opened their doors to visitors as part of the Catonsville Historical Society’s home and garden tour. The unexpected, and unusual, access was greeted with delight, especially by some residents whose homes were also part of the tour.
But the nuns say they’re open to the community far more than people in the area may realize, and the grounds are available for visitors, regardless of religious affiliation..
“The natives are friendly,” Sister Barbara Ann jokes.
Aside from the 10 nuns, there are three cooks and a groundskeeper at the convent. There are also two cats — one named for Saint Dominic and the other for Saint Benedict, who freely roam the large white halls of the building. They used to be allowed to sleep in the chapel, Sister Barbara Ann said, but after finding the pair laying on the altar one too many times, she said the nuns decided to keep that part of the convent closed off to feline visitors.
The sisters, the youngest of whom is in her 50’s, operate a card shop out of the convent, where they sell cards designed by Sister Barbara Ann and colored in by a number of other nuns, Sister Barbara Ann said.
They also sell rosaries and other items and house a retreat center on their grounds, as well as eight guest rooms in the convent building, one of which was occupied last week by a woman contemplating becoming a nun.
Recent statistics from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate revealed that the number of both nuns and priests in the United States has fallen over the past half-century. For priests, the number has fallen from about 59,000 to 38,000. The rate of decline for religious sisters has been even faster. In 1965, the study said, there were 180,000 nuns in the U.S. In 2014, that number was recorded as just 50,000.
All 10 nuns in the All Saints Sisters of the Poor order in the United States live at the Catonsville convent. A few are temporarily living elsewhere while they receive medical treatment or are stationed at other religious institutions.
Sister Barbara Ann said she doesn’t know what the next 100 years have in store for the sisters, but she’s confident it will be as good as the past century.
“Whatever it is, it will be in God’s hands and God’s will,” she said. “We will just wait and see.”