The sacred trust of maintenance, repair takes on a religious fervor

Jacques Kelly

May 01, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

It's heartening to see the freshly cleaned walls of the granite tower of the old Berea Temple at Madison Avenue and Robert Street.

Thanks to the hard work of its congregation, this Seventh-day Adventist landmark just off Eutaw Place is beginning an expensive and lengthy restoration. All of the city's houses of worship should be so lucky.

Not many blocks away, at Baker and Gilmor streets, there's a vacant lot where the stone walls and bell tower of the old St. Gregory's Roman Catholic Church stood until last summer. This grand 1880s building, long abandoned, is an extreme case of what can happen. The congregation today worships next door in one of the parish's buildings, a much lesser structure than the church that was bulldozed.

Baltimore possesses a skyline full of towers, domes, spires and minarets. It's a city of neighborhoods, churches, temples and synagogues. Generations supported these religious institutions that were -- and are -- the pride of their neighborhoods.

Yet anyone connected with a church or synagogue maintenance committee knows that magnificent ecclesiastical architecture carries the price of constant care.

From May 6-9, Baltimore's older houses of worship will be the subject of a national conference called "Sacred Trusts." The series of valuable talks and workshops will examine the ways and means of the stewardship of religious property with an eye toward building a firm foundation in shaky economic times.

"I wouldn't be surprised if 30 percent of the city's mainline congregations closed in the next 10 years due to demographic changes," said David C. Casey, an official of Jubilee Baltimore, a major sponsor of the conference and a developer of low-income housing here.

In the past year, two Baltimore landmark churches -- the former Christ Church (Episcopal) at St. Paul and Chase streets and St. James the Less (Catholic) at Aisquith and Eager streets -- have become homes to new congregations. Christ Church is now the New Refuge Holiness Cathedral, and St. James is the Urban Bible Fellowship Church. Each of these buildings has massive steeples and large roofs.

Mr. Casey fervently believes that Baltimore has many examples of how solidly built religious buildings can be saved and put to sound economic use.

"All too often, folks get overly worried if an old church building gets run down. They think it has to be demolished. This is often not the case," he said.

So Mr. Casey surveys his immediate neighborhood in East and Southeast Baltimore, where there seems to be a Gothic Revival tower on every other corner, and wonders about the fate of all this stone, stained glass and woodwork. He estimates that the Catholic archdiocese has about 20 vacant convents, rectories and former parochial school buildings that are vacant or under-used.

The propose of the conference is to bring national experts here to give sound advice on repairs and maintenance, property management, community outreach and finding new ways to raise funds.

"It's nice to have new bathrooms and a kitchen, but one expert told me that 80 percent of a church's maintenance budget should go into roofs and items like downspouts and gutters. It's the rot from water that causes the ceilings to fall in," Mr. Casey said.

Registration for the Sacred Trusts Conference is May 6, noon to 5 p.m. at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Cathedral and Read streets.

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