When Inspiration Strikes

When Inspiration Strikes…
By: Sally Riley
April 22, 2015

Octagon Building at Mount Saint Agnes
Octagon Building at Mount Saint Agnes
As published in Mary Costello, The Sisters of Mercy of Maryland: 1855-1930 (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1931).

I’m a graduate of Mount Saint Agnes Lower School and Mount Saint Agnes College [MSAC].  So, when a copy of the Architect’s History of the Octagon Building fell into my hands in May 2009, I wanted to share it with all my former classmates.  The Octagon Building was the oldest building on campus; but, the report, more than 80 pages long and full of deep architectural and engineering detail, is tedious and dull to read.  This posed a problem I was determined to resolve – how could I write it in a way that would be interesting?

A couple of weeks later, scanning the shelves in a second-hand bookstore on 25th Street in Baltimore, I spotted a garnet-colored plastic spine about 3.5 inches high.  I knew that spine… from about 40 years ago!  I eased it off the shelf and sure enough it was a copy of Keynotes, our student handbook from the 1960s!   And they were only asking $15 for it!   What’s a few dollars among friends?   So, I had the Architect’s History and a copy of Keynotes.  What to do with them?

In July, wandering through a large bookstore in Hunt Valley, the cover of a book caught my eye.  The women on the front of the book were dressed in the postulant’s and novice’s habits of the Sisters of Mercy.  The book, titled Catherine’s Sisters, by Irene Callahan, begged me to pick it up and see what it was about.  Almost 90 minutes later, I had given the cashier my credit card for a copy.  The Octagon Building had been the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy.

Now I was convinced that the Fates, Mother Nature and God were all conspiring to persuade me to write about the Mount.  Thereafter, I began a 6-year research expedition into the history of the campus in Mount Washington, Maryland.   Hours, eventually weeks, were consumed searching Genealogybank.com for newspaper articles and advertisements concerning the Mount Washington Female Seminary and Mount Saint Agnes.  Book shelves were scanned at the Historical Society of Baltimore County for anything about the school.  File folders of papers contributed to the MSAC Alumnae Archives were scanned for historical information.  Alumnae were contacted in search of old catalogs and yearbooks with pictures to help illustrate the history of bygone days.

Of Past and of Future Years: Mount Saint Agnes: A timeline History and Reflections
Sally Riley, ed., Of Past and of Future Years: Mount Saint Agnes: A timeline History and Reflections (2015)

After 6 years, I had 25+ pages of an annotated, illustrated timeline history of the Mount Saint Agnes Campus, from the early days of Mount Washington in 1810 to the present day.  Reflections of former alumnae and the history of the Alumnae Association were added.  This spring Of Past and of Future Years finally went to press.  The book will be distributed to alumnae at this year’s Annual Reunion.

You never know where inspiration will spring up, or when it will tap you on the shoulder.  But when it does, LISTEN!  It may just be the beginning of an adventure which will change the course of your life.  As I stated, part of my research led me to the Historical Society of Baltimore County to find an early (1850s) map of Mount Washington, then a part of Baltimore County.  I was so enchanted with HSBC I began volunteering here, and it’s been one of the great pleasures of my retirement.