Apartment chapel is focus of church-state fight

August 05, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

The battle lines are drawn between the feisty, mostly elderly residents of Lemko House in Fells Point and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has ordered their popular chapel dismantled.

The residents of the federally financed apartment building say God is on their side. But they are not relying solely on the deity.

In their church-state fight with the government, they have won the support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who lives across the street from Lemko's front door.

The small, carpeted chapel, partitioned from Lemko's large "multipurpose room" on the ground floor, has existed since the six-story brick building at 603 S. Ann St. was completed and opened to residents in 1983.

The 110 moderately priced efficiency and one-bedroom apartments are all occupied, and there is a waiting list.

The Rev. Ivan Dornic, the Byzantine Catholic priest who heads Lemko's board and is pastor of the congregation that sponsored the project, said HUD inspectors had informally expressed their unhappiness about the chapel during annual visits, but only recently was an ultimatum put in writing.

Lemko's board has scheduled a meeting tomorrow evening to discuss the issue and prepare an official reply.

In a letter dated July 9, HUD's Baltimore manager, Maxine S. Saunders, flatly told a committee representing 98 protesting residents, "You may not maintain a permanent chapel, regardless of whether or not it is nondenominational, in Lemko Housing."

The reason spelled out was that "the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the 'sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.' "

Ms. Saunders explained, "Our inquiry into this issue began after receiving a telephone consumer complaint from a Lemko resident alleging that the multipurpose room at Lemko Housing was being used as a Catholic chapel.

"Further, it was alleged that non-Catholic residents would not use the facility because the symbols and other objects used in Catholic worship were allowed to remain in the facility throughout the day."

Father Dornic and others at Lemko dispute that such a complaint was ever made, saying they have been unable to find a single resident who is unhappy with the chapel.

Among the residents vigorously protesting the HUD order are a Baptist and a Buddhist.

"I am a Baptist and proud of it," exclaimed Odessie V. Rookstool, 87, who moved to Lemko from Fleet Street nine years ago. Her Baptist pastor, who has since died, was on the board at that time.

"I go there once in a while and pray," she said, nodding toward the chapel door, "and I pray for the church to stay here."

James D. Wier, an artist who has been a practicing Buddhist for 20 years and a resident of Lemko for two, said, "Some busybody at the HUD office decided to find a problem here. I don't believe there is a problem."

Mr. Wier, 42, was in a coma for three months after an automobile accident when he was 18. He uses a wheelchair and occupies one of the apartments specially equipped for the disabled. He heads the Committee to Save Lemko Chapel.

"I could see a problem if federal money were being used to help or maintain the chapel," he said, noting that private donations furnished it. He said that private support is in contrast to chapels in federally maintained hospitals and prisons and at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Rules are made to help people," Mr. Wier said. "Rules are not made to hurt people. Therefore, rules should be flexible. I feel this with all my heart."

The chapel's decorations -- crosses, flickering candles and hand-painted icons associated with Eastern Rite Catholicism -- are not a distraction when he goes there to meditate, the Buddhist said. "I'm an artist. I admire them from an artist's point of view."

He insisted that removing the chapel would seriously endanger the lives of many elderly Lemko residents, who would brave traffic and increasing street crime in Fells Point to walk to neighborhood churches for the daily worship to which they are accustomed.

Roman and Byzantine Catholic Masses are offered in the chapel by various priests at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 5 p.m. Saturdays. It is open 24 hours a day for private prayer and meditation and is used for Protestant as well as Catholic services, Father Dornic said.

Among the residents who frequent the chapel for private prayer is Margaret Grattan, 90. "It means a lot to me," she said there on a recent afternoon. "I come in three times a day. I thank God I'm here because a lot of places don't have a chapel."

Michael Petro, 81, called the chapel "the closest thing to God there is." He starts every morning there, he said. But it is popular at night, too. "If a grandmother wants to pray for her deceased husband at 2 in the morning, she should be allowed to," exclaimed Mr. Wier.

The chapel has also seen festive events. Pantaleon Madaloyo, who was born in the Philippines, was the third person to move into Lemko House in 1983. On July 4 this year -- his 84th birthday -- he and his wife, Martha, were married in the chapel.

It was the chapel's first wedding, Father Dornic said. He hopes it will not be its last.

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