Apron in coffin marks priest's mission

Jacques Kelly

June 26, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The mourners arrived yesterday afternoon and evening to spend a few minutes at the coffin of a 90-year-old man many regarded as a saint. Their eyes filled up when they saw his black apron, the one he wore to feed thousands of poor East Baltimore families, draped over his shoes.

Even in death, his body appeared tall and ready to take on another day.

The people came to call on the Rev. George Andrew Wichland, a Redemptorist priest who died of cancer Tuesday. He lay in state in the center aisle of St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, Ashland and Collington avenues.

His funeral was being held today.

Father Wichland gave nearly 40 years to East Baltimore, much of that time handing out hams, half-gallons of milk and cans of corn. As recently as this spring, he worked at an amazing food center that feeds 600 families and 400 individuals a week with bagged )) or boxed foods.

His brand of charity was as he was -- quiet, non-stop and unsentimental. He simply fed the hungry and did it very well.

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

He didn't do it alone. Over the years, he'd established a small army of helpers and donors who never said "No" to their Father Wichland. And it was mainly these people who paid their last respects. His callers came from all over the city and Baltimore County, from Edmondson Avenue to Federal Street, Randallstown to Rosedale. The priest had friends and admirers everywhere.

Somehow, Father Wichland raised about $60,000 annually through the hundreds of $10 and $20 donations that kept his food distribution program going. People knew this priest gave every penny away. Grocers in Marley Neck always had an extra carton of food for him. He kept a couple of delivery vans busy just picking up the food he'd later give away.

And he never refused a donation, even if it was bags of old clothes that weren't in much demand. His workroom, in the shell of the old St. John the Evangelist Church, Valley and Eager streets, was piled high with everything from giveaway mushroom soup to box springs. The people he served were the poorest of the poor. The door of his food center faced 50-year-old public housing projects.

He kept his financial records in a battered spiral notebook and he wrote letters of acknowledgment to his benefactors nightly. Each piece of correspondence was boldly signed with a felt-tip pen.

His little desk at the St. Wenceslaus rectory was always piled high with jumbled papers. His most important letters, however, sat in neat piles on his single bed. When he retired for the evening, this correspondence remained there. "I'm not a restless sleeper," he once explained to another priest.

Father Wichland possessed a magnificent energy that seemed to radiate to the people around him. Many of his volunteers were not young people. In retirement, they had second careers as Father Wichland's food distributors.

He rose each morning between 4 and 5, read his breviary prayers, then was driven to the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street for his morning Mass for the sisters. He then went to the food center for a day's work. There his hands never stopped moving. At 90, he worked faster than a 21-year-old grocery store stock boy.

Come weekends, he heard hours of confessions. People sought his solid, clear-sighted advice on all their troubles. It was not unusual for three phone lines to be lighted up for him after dinner, when people knew he would be back in the rectory.

People brought Father Wichland their troubles and maybe a case of tuna too. He gladly accepted both.

Standing at his coffin were 89-year-old George Lee and 70-year-old Otis Hughes, both long-time workers at the food center.

Both prayed that his work would continue, that Baltimore would have enough charity to keep the place staffed and open.

Mr. Hughes looked down at the deceased priest's apron and was reminded of the food center: "Keep it open in the name of God, with the help of the Lord."

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