“History will recognize them as leaders in the community and in education,” Ralph Moore, director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, said about Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby. The official naming of the community center in honor of the African-American couple is now only two weeks away. Lettering for the occasion was completed on Monday and can now be seen on the façade of the community center building.
“It’s a fresh start in a way,” Jessica Hutchinson, who works with students after school at the community center. “It’s really important to have figures who have made such a great impact that people may not have known about. It offers a dialogue for change and activism in our community.”
April 20 will be a day full of celebration, as the public naming ceremony will begin at 2 p.m., and later, a gala dinner will be held at Martin’s West with Soledad O’Brien as keynote speaker. Tickets to the evening festivities, which begin at 6:30 p.m., are still available. Proceeds from the gala will go to scholarships for children attending the school and its programs.
Both the after-school program and the six-week Nawal Rajeh Peace Camp offered in the summer by St. Frances Academy are free of charge to participating children. The center was completed ten years ago, costing a total of $6.5 million. Aside from $1.3 million in bonds from the State of Maryland, and $1 million from the France Merrick Foundation, the Oblate Sisters raised the majority of the money for the center from fundraising campaigns with the community.
“It happened to be a good time for funding because at that time the stocks were good,” said Sister John Francis Shilling, the Oblate Sister who first introduced the idea of a community center 12 years ago. “I saw so many things going on in the community, and I just felt like if we had a place where they could come, we could service so many more people, and we could do so many more things.” A resident of the neighborhood for nearly three decades, Sister Francis Shilling says the center grew out of the original need to give their children a home court to play basketball games.
It was this type of determined figure with vision and purpose that Camille Cosby was surrounded by in the halls of St. Cyprian’s Elementary School of Washington, D.C., where she was taught by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
“Mrs. Cosby is one of our own. The Sisters would call her an ‘Oblate girl;’ she got some of her educational foundation with the Oblate Sisters of Providence- which is the oldest order of African-American nuns in the country,” said Moore.
The Oblate Sisters of Providence claim the esteemed title of the “first successful Roman Catholic sisterhood in the world established by women of African descent.” St. Frances Academy was founded in 1828 by the Sisters and has long held strong bonds to the African American and Hispanic community and culture.
To date, the dynamic duo is the largest benefactor of the Catholic school, donating $2 million in 2005 for student scholarships to attend the academy. Aside from offering programming for children, the community center does voter registration, resume training in conjunction with job fairs, and computer literacy classes for adults.