The scene at Poppleton and Hollins streets in Southwest Baltimore could have been lifted from a 19th century church photograph.
There were black-caped Knights of Columbus, nuns in billowing white habits, altar boys in red cassocks and an archbishop with a miter and crozier.
Every pew overflowed for the 150th anniversary of St. Peter the Apostle Church, a graceful and pleasant Greek Revival building that is home to one of the city's oldest Roman Catholic parishes.
Archbishop William H. Keeler lauded the congregation for its "generosity of heart" during a Mass filled with Latin hymns, ringing tower bells, waving hand fans and references to the permanence and unbroken ties found in one of Baltimore's classic neighborhoods.
"Today, the Sicilians and the Lithuanians fooled the Irish into thinking it was their day," said St. Peter's pastor, the Rev. Michael J. Roach, referring to the many families who worked on the church's big celebration.
Over the decades, St. Peter's has been the spiritual and academic home to thousands of immigrant workers who laid the B&O Railroad's tracks and cut through the Alleghanies.
At times during the 19th century, St. Peter's was the largest parish in Baltimore, both in territory and in numbers. Its boundaries once stretched from the west edge of downtown to Ellicott City. Over the decades, 16 sister congregations were carved from this church.
And while its families have spoken with Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, German, West Indies and Southern accents, the church has a fierce loyalty to Baltimore.
"I can recall an old woman describing the Hollins Street of her youth. She said, 'Father, it was all lace curtains and brass rails,' " said Father Roach, who in addition to tending to his pastoral duties serves as professor of church history at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg.
The 90-minute Mass yesterday had many references to the 150-year-old history of the parish, especially the educational work of the Sisters of Mercy, who have staffed parish schools here since 1855. The sisters still run a preschool and a literacy program as well as working with the neighborhood's poor.
The nuns arrived from Dublin during the lengthy pastorate of the mighty Monsignor Edward McColgan, a priest who organized the parish in 1842 and who died in its rectory on Feb. 1, 1898, after 56 years of service.
Like so many tenacious Southwest Baltimoreans, Monsignor McColgan just wouldn't leave the old neighborhood.
Keeping that tradition of vigor alive yesterday was Mary Avara, 82, who is best known as the keeper of Maryland's morals in her former capacity as the state movie censor. She arrived early at the church and went to work in the basement hall to prepare a lunch for some 500 parish celebrants.
"The meatballs and the tomato sauce were the first things to go. This may be an Irish parish but they don't eat like that," Avara said.
Virginia Pilkerton, a West Lombard Street resident whose ancestors were among the parish's founding members, led a procession with many of her children and grandchildren.
"The shrill blast of the B&O whistle regulated the lives of the people of St. Peter's, sending the kids scurrying home to wash up before supper, just as it had roused them from bed in early morning to get ready for school," wrote Marty Flynn, a St. Peter's parishioner, a few years ago.
"The whole neighborhood changed rhythm at quitting time -- dogs barked, corner stores bustled, cook pots were moved to the hot part of the coal range -- as the workmen hurried through back gates, under grape arbors to the waiting basin of water and soap.
"Quite often, supper was al fresco -- not to be stylish but because the week's laundry was hanging criss-crossed on lines in the kitchen," Flynn wrote.