Still going strong at 90 years old, priest helps to feed city's hungry

September 20, 1991|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Evening Sun Staff

A few church mice scurried around the feet of the black shoes of the old priest carrying a carton of cans of pork and beans.

The Rev. George A. Wichland, C.SS.R., who turns 90 today, couldn't be bothered. He had 600 families and 400 individuals to feed this week.

Still erect, with clear skin and a full head of white hair, the Redemptorist priest operates a giveaway food, clothing and furnishing warehouse in one of the poorest East Baltimore neighborhoods. Within the shell of an old church, he leads 40 members of a volunteer army who dispense emergency help to just about any neighbor who shows up at the door.

The priest is legally blind, has lost hearing in one ear and suffers from prostate cancer. Yet he works seven days a week and tires out most people around him. Come weekends, when the food center closes, he hears confessions and visits the sick in nursing homes.

Wichland rises at 4 a.m. in the rectory of St. Wenceslaus Church, Ashland and Collington avenues. He has breakfast and reads his breviary prayers. A car picks him up at 6:30 a.m. and he's off to Aisquith Street and the Institute of Notre Dame, where he says mass for the sisters in their chapel.

His next stop is a side door in the basement of the old St. John the Baptist Church, Valley and Eager streets, which was closed as an active parish years ago. In its day, it was the heart of the old 10th Ward so fabled in Irish political and social lore. Today, Wichland winces when he says many of the surrounding streets are "dope centers."

Inside the church basement, he has aisles piled with canned peas, soups and flour sacks. A bank of wheezing old refrigerators and freezers hold roast beef and other perishables. Upstairs, where congregations once sang, "All Hail to St. Patrick," the deconsecrated church nave is stuffed with racks of clothing, dining room furniture and used appliances.

Day in and out, he's packing cardboard boxes with enough food for three days.

Wichland, born of Lithuanian parents in Reading, Mass., retains more than a trace of his New England accent. He worked two years in Boston as a shipping clerk before deciding to enter a religious life. Since his 1932 ordination, he has served in Paraguay, Philadelphia, and, for the past 39 years, Baltimore.

In 1967, he took over the Redemptorist Fathers' Emergency Food Program, a large and open-handed pantry that differs from a soup kitchen. Everything distributed is canned or bagged for home consumption.

Wichland's right hand is Deborah Barnes, a Catholic Charities social worker who interviews the people seeking help. "She's a tough manager and says the things I can't say," he said.

"I've worked other places but this is the greatest spot," Barnes said. "I leave here tired but a new person every day."

One day this week, she arranged a 90th birthday party for Wichland. As she set out the tablecloths, he was right behind, making sure there enough snacks for the volunteers who would be celebrating with him.

Wichland depends on his donors. "I have about 400 people who take care of me," he said.

Three Catholic congregations -- Shrine of the Little Flower (Belair Road), St. Joseph's in Fullerton and Ascension in Halethorpe -- and a Lutheran congregation, St. Michael's in Perry Hall -- are generous givers. So is the Maryland Food Bank.

"You have to learn that what you give away is all uniform," the priest said. "I pack the same amount of cans in each box."

He recalled the time a man was handed a free chicken and then complained that it only had one wing. "I said to him, 'How much did you pay for it?' "

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