Every morning, Sister Mary Bourdon leaves the Columbia Heights rowhouse she shares with three other nuns. Behind the wheel of her bright-blue Pontiac Vibe, she heads east over the Anacostia River into Southeast DC. On Mississippi Avenue, a sparkling glass-and-steel building seems to appear out of nowhere. Inside, she passes a 365-seat theater, a ballet studio surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, art and music galleries, and a medical clinic. As she nears her office, the laughter and chatter of young girls echo off the walls.
Thirteen years ago, when Sister Mary’s vision of starting a Catholic school for girls in Anacostia was still a dream, critics told her about other well-meaning people who had gone there trying to start schools. Many of them failed. She should start her school in a more “central” neighborhood, she was told.
Sister Mary didn’t like hearing the word “central.” It reminded her of the barrier many Washingtonians see between Southeast and the rest of DC.
“I don’t know why,” she says, “but that bridge is 1,000 miles long.”
Sister Mary started thinking about starting a school for young girls in the 1990s. Regina High School in Hyattsville, the girls’ school where she had worked as a counselor and teacher, closed in 1989.
For her next job, she wanted to help girls in DC. She was tired of reading the statistics about girls dropping out of school, so she started spending time in Anacostia. She went to the police station, nail salons, and church basements. She talked with youth workers, pastors, and business owners. When she met parents of young children, she asked, “Should we start a school? It’s up to you.”
Her circle of supporters grew. In addition to the Religious of Jesus and Mary, Sister Mary’s order of Catholic nuns, she recruited the National Council of Negro Women and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, another community of Catholic sisters, to become partners in the school.
Eventually she crossed paths with developer Chris Smith, whose real-estate firm, William C. Smith Company, owns many of the apartment complexes in Southeast DC. Smith remembers seeing Sister Mary’s petite frame and humble manner. “Looks can be deceiving,” he says. “She’s a ball of energy. She constantly goes—morning, noon, and night.”
Smith decided to give Sister Mary space in the basement of one of his apartment buildings, where she launched an after-school tutoring program for fourth- and fifth-grade girls in 1997.
Twice as many kids signed up as expected. An hour before the first session, she had to run across the street and borrow a table from another school. It took only one year for parents to believe in Sister Mary enough to pull their kids out of public school and entrust them to her. In September 1998, the after-school program officially became the Washington Middle School for Girls, for fifth- and sixth-graders.
Paul Warren, publisher of Warren Communications News and chairman of Washington Middle’s board of directors, remembers the first time he met Sister Mary. A graduate of Gonzaga high school, Warren was part of a group that started the Washington Jesuit Academy, an all-boys, tuition-free middle school in Northeast DC.
Warren says he had heard rumblings about a nun running a similar girls’ school in Anacostia. In 2002, at an education convention in Florida, he and Sister Mary had lunch. “She was kind of pixieish,” he says. “She had a charm to her, a humility. She liked to laugh. She came across as deeply spiritual, but she didn’t wear it on her sleeve.”
Sister Mary doesn’t wear a habit, and her only jewelry is a silver cross that dangles from her neck. Chris Smith can tell story after story about Sister Mary’s charm—such as the one about the repairman who came to fix a telephone line and left agreeing to give the school a free phone system.
The daughter of an industrial engineer and a stay-at-home mom, Sister Mary was born in Rhode Island and grew up in a large Catholic family. Her six brothers and one sister are all pranksters. When First Lady Laura Bush’s secretary called in 2007 to schedule a visit to the school, Sister Mary thought one of her siblings was playing a joke.
Sister Mary knew from a young age that God was calling her to a religious life. Her parents instilled a strong faith in their children; one of Sister Mary’s brothers is a priest in Rhode Island. After her sophomore year at Regent College in Boston, she transferred to American University to be close to the headquarters of the Religious of Jesus and Mary.
She started spending time with the sisters and talking to them about their work. She was drawn to the group’s mission of helping the poor. Today her order has 11 nuns scattered across Washington. Two are attorneys, and one is a chaplain at Georgetown University.
Warren says Sister Mary has an extraordinary ability to inspire others. “People are dying for true, authentic heroes,” he says. “And that’s exactly what this woman is.”
Washington Middle School now has 93 students on two campuses. Sister Mary seeks out girls whose families can’t afford more than the school’s $25 monthly tuition, a fee she imposes to teach families financial literacy and accountability. The staff hosts picnics and recruits kids from the neighborhood. “We know by definition that the students we want may not be looking for us,” she says.
Many of the girls who attend Washington Middle live in Anacostia—90 percent of the students are raised in single-parent homes, and 85 percent qualify for federal meal programs.
The fourth- and fifth-graders take classes in the Washington View, an apartment complex on the southern edge of Anacostia. In June, a drive-by shooter sprayed gunfire into a group of neighborhood kids standing outside the apartments. A 9-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy were shot.