With the possible exceptions of a blue crab or an orange bird, few things are more profoundly Baltimore than the Institute of Notre Dame, at the corner of Aisquith Street and Ashland Avenue. And no one is more "IND" than Sister Hilda Marie Sutherland, SSND.
"Hi Hildie," say the IND girls as they arrive each morning at the old 19th-century motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
"Hi Hon!" answers Hildie to each and every one.
"Hildie"-her religious honorific unnecessary to generations of young women who hold her dear-grew up at 1335 Font Hill Ave. in Gwynn Falls.
Her mother, the former Marjorie Kind, passed away while delivering her ninth child, who also died. Hildie's widowed father, an immigrant printer from Scotland named David, had his hands full, so Hildie was placed at St. Mary's Female Orphan Asylum in Roland Park in her early teens.
There, in the first years after World War II, she discerned a call to religious life and, at 17, entered the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame convent at IND. She never left, the last 68 of her 81 years spent doing whatever needs to be done at 901 Aisquith St.
"See those beautiful murals?" she says, pointing to images of Christ and saints and angels on plaster near the front door. "Our nuns painted those years ago. A few times a year, I soak a rag in Windex and leave it out overnight. Then I put the rag on a stick and rub down the murals. Keeps 'em nice."
Out in the hallway, she stops before a large, framed sketch of the campus when Aisquith Street-named for a sharp-shooting hero of the War of 1812-was largely pasture. A group of students pass by, arms full of books.
All day long.
Hildie rises every day about 5 a.m. without an alarm.
"The angels and the poor souls wake me up," she says, eyes twinkling. The angels include Blessed Mary Theresa (born Caroline Gerhardinger of Bavaria in 1797), the founder of the School Sisters who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
The "poor souls" are just that: ghosts in dire straits. Lots of them.
"I've seen 'em," says Hildie in the same Baltimore accent with which she pronounces the country where the Vatican resides ("IT-lee").
"You see their bodies but you never see their faces, they're poor souls trying to get to heaven and they tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Please pray for me.'"
Stories of spirits wandering the winding stairways of the building, over 100 years old, are well known throughout IND-an extended family anchored by some 7,000 alumni-and have been seen and heard by others at the school. But they are best known by Hildie, who says she has encountered ghosts, both alone and in groups, some 90 times.
Some, she believes, may be the souls of long-deceased nuns whose bodies were laid out in the IND "parlors" before the use of commercial funeral homes became common.
"I say, 'My Jesus, mercy,'" a prayer she hopes will move the souls a little closer to glory. One Easter weekend, she heard disembodied voices loud enough to wake her. She recited the rosary and they fell silent.
Hildie begins each day with a half-hour of prayer and meditation. After breakfast she takes up her station at the front door. After several hundred "Hi Hon!" salutes, she runs the bookstore, drops by classrooms, and attends nearly every event-from the IND booth at the annual downtown FlowerMart to basketball games-while embodying all that is good and memorable about IND.
She is the school's official "director of hospitality" and also something of a card, known to don a Fu Manchu mustache to amuse the students.
Her old buddy William Donald Schaefer "had a temper, but when he cooled down, [the rift] was over." When Kevin Bacon was in a movie that filmed at IND, Hildie made sure to have her photo taken with the actor. She'd hoped for the same with Kevin Spacey during a recent House of Cards filming, but Spacey was harder to pin down than the poor souls (or Kevin Bacon).
She is well-known in the impoverished community that surrounds IND (during the King riots of 1968, neighbors marked the school as friendly to African-Americans) and each Thanksgiving puts together "Hildie's Helpers" boxes of food to give away.
Hildie is especially impressed with people-be they students or neighbors-who "make themselves something better than they were" and remembers being given a hard time by a manager at Epstein's department store in Highlandtown back in the 1950s when she tried to buy shoes and underwear for more than a dozen black kids who lived near IND.
The owner walked in during the stand-off, and after Hildie explained the situation, the manager was told, "Give Sister what she wants."
Hildie gave up the full habit of the School Sisters in the 1970s but will take some practices to the grave. Like getting in a cab at the end of each day for a mile-and-a-half ride to Mercy Hospital to attend 6 p.m. mass. Except when it's very cold; then she watches mass on TV.
It is doubtful she will suffer the wandering of a poor soul hoping to gain entry to paradise.