A Life of Honor and Piety: Mary Latrobe Onderdonk

This cabinet card portrait, inscribed “Mrs. Onderdonk,” was taken at Richard Walzl’s (1843-1899) Baltimore studio, located at 46 N. Charles Street from 1873 to 1881 (Kelbaugh, Directory of Maryland Photographers 1839-1900).

The cherub and camera motif on the reverse was popular on studio photograph advertising ca. 1866-1874.

Mrs. Onderdonk wears a large artificial hairpiece, a fashion of the 1850s that persisted through the 1870s. The hairpiece, made of human hair, is worn as a braided coronet with two long “lovelocks.”

I was able to confirm the identify of the sitter by comparing the portrait to two group photographs in which she appears, taken at the Saint James School near Hagerstown, an institution with which she was closely associated for 47 years.

Mrs. Mary Onderdonk, born Mary Elizabeth Latrobe, was christened at Christ Episcopal Church, Chase and St. Paul streets, Baltimore, on 15 March 1837.

Born in Salem, New Jersey, she was the second of five children and the first daughter of civil engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe Jr. (1806-1878) and Maria Eleanor “Ellen” Hazlehurst Latrobe (1807-1872).

In 1868 or 1869, she married a widowed teacher with two teen-aged sons, Henry Onderdonk (1822-1895). Onderdonk, formerly head of the Maryland Agricultural College, was about to take on the rebuilding, both literal and figurative, of the College of Saint James near Hagerstown, in Washington County, Maryland.

Mary would be his help-meet.

Founded by the Episcopal Church in 1842 as Saint James Hall on part of the General Samuel Ringgold estate,  Fountain Rock, the school had been abandoned in 1864, after General Jubal Early’s forces occupied the grounds and some of the buildings and arrested the school’s head, Dr. Kerfoot.

Onderdonk reopened the old college as a boys’ preparatory institution, and through his and Mary’s unrelenting labors, and that of their son Adrian,  today it endures as the thriving Saint James School.

In June 1885, the Hagerstown Herald and Torchlight reported on Onderdonk’s commencement address, in which he recalled the early days after their arrival, when “the buildings [were] so ruined and dilapiated as to be uninhabitable.”

The new Mrs. Onderdonk took on the task of helping her husband revive and run the school and care for the boys. The nearest town, Williamsport, was five miles away, and the school was almost nine miles from Hagerstown.  With little financial support forthcoming from the school’s trustees, the Onderdonks used $5,000 of their own money on the effort.

For a woman brought up in a well-to-do household in Baltimore, rebuilding must have meant hard physical labor in less-than-ideal conditions, including everything from cooking, cleaning, laundry and sewing to nursing sick students.

By 1877, when the Illustrated Atlas of Washington County was published, the school was well established as an excellent educational institution, and worthy of illustration as one of the highlights of the area.

Mary’s hard work, determination and organizational skills were surely an unacknowledged part of this success.

But her work did not stop at the edge of the school grounds. As wife of a prominent county citizen, she was expected to take part in the larger life of the county and the local Epsicopal church.

Hagerstown papers mention Mary Onderdonk as a leader of the Dorcas Society, which sewed for the poor and indigent, and as an active member of the board of the Washington County Orphans’ Home.

She bore her husband two sons, Latrobe Onderdonk (1872-1883), and Adrian Holmes Onderdonk (1877-1956), who became the revered long-time headmaster of the school in 1903.

Omitting mention of Mary’s work as her husband’s partner in the school’s revival, her obituary in the Hagerstown Daily Mail notes the stock feminine qualities  associated with the good Victorian woman: her regular attendance at chapel, her “noble and upright character” and “lovable and kindly disposition.”

Mary (1836-1916 and Henry Onderdonk (1822-1895) are buried in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. Each year the school honors a student–and remembers Mary Onderdonk–with the Mary Latrobe Onderdonk Memorial Prize for Sound School Citizenship.

Additional Sources:

Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography, William C. Darrah (Gettysburg, Pa.: W.C. Darrah, 1981)

Saint James School: One Hundred Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (Hagerstown: Saint James School, 1967)

History of Western Maryland, vol. 1, John Thomas Scharf (Philadelphia, Pa.: L. H. Everts, 1882)

Dressed for the Photographer, Joan Severa (Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1995)

Mary Onderdonk’s obituary provided courtesy of the Washington County Free Library

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