Back when Richard Nixon was telling a skeptical nation, “I am not a crook,” Patricia Ann Dowling was a rookie in the hospitality business. Right out of University of Massachusetts, Amherst and into the Holiday Inn corporation, managing a front office and keeping the books.
About once a year, hotel staff would give blood at a Catholic hospital near Lawrence, Massachusetts, then operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours. The religious staff at “the Bon,” made a strong impression and young Dowling was taken with their kindness, professionalism and, she said, “their earthy sense of humor.”
Dowling was also on her own for the first time in her life, “23-years-old and fending for myself,” she said. A cradle Catholic, she attended weekly Mass and sang in the choir. But it wasn’t until she began praying — quietly, in earnest and alone — that great events came to pass.
“Prayer was the beginning of it all,” she said, sitting in the parlor of a former Catholic vocational school in the unit block of North Fulton Avenue. “I began to know the expansiveness of God — He became real to me.”
And the meditation brought to the searching young woman a nettlesome message.
“The idea of becoming a nun popped into my head and scared the daylights out of me,” she said. “And it wouldn’t go away.”
Less than two years later, Dowling joined the Sisters of Bon Secours, the French order with a strong presence in Baltimore — in particular West Baltimore — since the late 19th century. With a motto of “Good Help to Those in Need,” the sisters were invited to work in the birthplace of American Catholicism in 1881 by Cardinal James Gibbons.
In time, she became Sister Pat Dowling and has lived a few doors away from St. Martin’s Church at Fulton and Fayette streets since 1996, doing whatever needs to be done while holding a variety of administrative positions within the order.
There are many religious orders of women within Catholicism. Why the Sisters of Bon Secours?
“They took my call,” she said.
Recently turned 69 (she and Bon Secours housemate, Sr. Nancy Glynn, celebrated her birthday with a home-cooked lobster dinner), Dowling is in her fourth decade with the order. And while much has changed since the call to religious life began to pervade her prayers back in her Holiday Inn days, Dowling remains in the hospitality business.
“That’s big for us,” she said.
And it permeates much of West Baltimore, enduring beyond the November 2019 sale to LifeBridge Health of the hospital at Baltimore and Payson streets that bore the order’s name for a hundred years.
The Sisters of Bon Secours — having merged their health-care ministry with Mercy Health System of Ohio in 2018 — occupy three of the four corners at the junction of Fayette and Fulton.
Dominating the intersection, a door away from Dowling’s home, is the granite grandeur of St. Martin’s Church, once a vital congregation of Irish and German Americans last used for Catholic services in 2008.
When the cornerstone was laid in 1865 — several months after the end of the Civil War — a procession of more than 6,000 people passed the corner of Fulton and Fayette to witness the event. In the early 1950s, before white residents began leaving the neighborhood for the suburbs, the parish was among the largest in the archdiocese with 9,000 members.
In 2013 — for a price of $880,000 — the Bon Secours Mercy Health System acquired the church from the Archdiocese and has plans to transform it into three levels of affordable housing while preserving the part of the sanctuary facing the altar.
“We do all sorts of outreach here in West Baltimore,” said Dowling, noting that the order provides more than 1,000 units of housing for low-income families, many of them in renovated rowhouses.
Across the street from the church — where the St. Martin’s parochial school and convent stood until they were razed in 1997 — is Bon Secours Community Works, built in 1998. BSCW has a staff of some 70 people, providing family support, women’s resources, housing, youth employment and financial counseling. On the northeast corner is a greenhouse and urban farm.
As Dowling gave a sunny morning tour of the area, Tim Bridges drove by with a loud and joyful greeting –“Hi, Sister Pat” — as he crossed Fayette Street in his pick-up truck.
Bridges, 57, is a “service coordinator” for families living in Bon Secours housing, helping to cut red tape on everything from scheduling Covid-19 vaccinations, recertification of food stamps and applying for tax credits.
A lifetime resident of West Baltimore (his parents, Ben and Viola Bridges ran a grocery at Fayette and Gorman for some 40 years), Bridges came up in the Baptist faith and worshipped this Easter at Inner Court Ministries on Kavanaugh Street off of Monroe.
As a Christian, grounded in the teachings from childhood when he attended Gospel Tabernacle on Walbrook Avenue with his family, Bridges knows that acceptance of the resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion is the crux of the faith.
The passion of the Christ — known as Easter — is the ballgame.
“It’s easier to believe when you come up in that environment,” said Bridges. “Without that background or parents who are adamant about it, it can be challenging.”
And as Dowling knows — both from her own journey of the spirit to those of women she has counseled who express an interest in joining the Sisters of Bon Secours — there can be no faith without doubt.
“When I was in my 20s I couldn’t reconcile some of the mysteries of the faith,” she said. “I mean, how do you believe that what looks like bread and wine can be consecrated into the body and blood of Christ?”
The act — known as the transubstantiation- was first performed by Jesus himself at the Last Supper before the day he was put to death. It was re-enacted for the faithful around the world yesterday and at St. Ignatius Church on Calvert Street in Mount Vernon.
Sister Pat Dowling was there.
Rafael Alvarez is a 1976 graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School in the Irvington neighborhood of southwest Baltimore. He can be reached via email@example.com
So glad that they are preserving the alter. My mother’s father, Will McGowan was baptized there.
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