Catholic parish avoids dwelling on the future

May 16, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

At Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Liberty Heights Avenue, a congregation of 120 put up a brave front yesterday -- singing, praying and greeting one another warmly as usual -- but beneath the smiles the emotional wounds were deep.

"It's traumatic," said Deacon Malcolm Thompson after the 10 a.m. Mass. "The elderly people especially are very, very much hurt."

The Roman Catholic parish, which has ministered for 69 years in the grassy, tree-shaded Ashburton section of West Baltimore, is one of six in the city that archdiocesan officials say may have to close their doors because of shortages of priests and money.

"After 34 years here, I feel very upset," said Esther Brown, 84. "Driving to another church would be a problem for me. I can walk to church here."

"I feel so secure in Ashburton," she said. "There's such a good feeling -- the neighborhood is so upbeat. I feel safe walking here, even at night."

The next closest Catholic church for her, she said, would be All Saints, nearly a mile to the west.

All Saints is a larger parish, with singing by a Gospel choir --as distinct from the more traditional music and services at Our Lady of Lourdes, explained Deacon Thompson, 67.

A retired research chemist for the Department of Agriculture, the Ashburton resident has been a member of his neighborhood church for 34 years and its deacon for 22.

No subsidies for church

He said he hoped the archdiocesan decision-makers would consider the advantages of a self-reliant parish such as Our Lady of Lourdes which, despite its small numbers, "is not taking any subsidies." In fact, the parish finances charitable projects of its own, such as a food pantry recently praised by the Maryland Food Bank, he said.

"Here, I know everyone," Deacon Thompson said. "I can look out at the congregation and tell who is not here, who may be sick and need a visit."

Ms. Brown agreed. "In those larger numbers, you sort of get lost in the shuffle," she said. "Here, almost everybody is on a first-name basis. I had my hip replaced in December, and it seemed everyone in my parish cared. People here really help."

William E. Goodall, a 62-year-old retired employee of the Social Security Administration, also lives within walking distance of the Ashburton church, where he has been a member since 1966.

"I would feel very bad if it closed," he said. "It's sort of like a little family here."

Gwen Shipley, another member since the 1960s, had an explanation for the brave front of the congregation, which

avoided any direct references during Mass to the recent warnings by Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard that its time is

running out.

'Try not to think about it'

"People have known about it for about a month," Mrs. Shipley said, "but try not to think about it."

Mr. Goodall said, "Bishop Ricard told us to carry on with our activities, that the church wouldn't close for about a year."

So yesterday, the parish carried on with enthusiasm. Four young girls dressed in bridal white -- Myell, Kimberly and Crystal Bunn and Kiandra Randolph -- and two boys in their Sunday best -- Thomas Bunn and Gary Gray Jr. -- received their First Holy Communion.

The Rev. Joseph Snoha, a priest of the Vincentian order from Philadelphia who was appointed in September to the emergency post of administrator at Our Lady of Lourdes because it lacked a pastor, preached that "where there is God, there is love. . . . We find God's love not in work, not in money, not even in our worship, but in one another."

Members of Our Lady of Lourdes "come to church not as individuals, but as an assembly," Father Snoha said.

'Ambiguity' about decision

After Mass, he said that "there's still some ambiguity" about the intentions of the archdiocese to close his church.

What is expected this week, he said, is "the beginning of the final phase of a long process" of coming to terms with the problem of too few priests and too few parishioners for too many large, aging church buildings.

Our Lady of Lourdes seats 450, nearly four times yesterday's attendance. Its parochial school was closed in the 1970s.

"Our numbers started to dwindle when they closed the school," said Deacon Thompson. "Parents go where their children go."

Meeting tomorrow

Representatives of all 57 Catholic parishes still functioning in Baltimore have been summoned by Bishop Ricard to St. Jerome's Church, at Scott and Hamburg streets, for a meeting tomorrow.

It is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. The purpose, parish leaders have been told, will be discussions of plans for "a major restructuring" of the urban churches.

The proposals, the result of two years of studies, are expected to include more ambitious goals for "evangelizing dropouts" and increasing church membership, combining of some parishes under a single pastor and possibly the closing of as many as six underused church buildings within a year.

Five that are said to be on the "most endangered" list, in addition to Our Lady of Lourdes, are St. Ann's on Greenmount Avenue, St. Stanislaus Kostka in Fells Point, St. Cecilia's on Hilton Street, Holy Redeemer on South Oldham Street and St. Gerard's in O'Donnell Heights.

Each of the six, Bishop Ricard and other church officials involved in the planning said last week, averages a total attendance of fewer than 300 at all of its weekend Masses.

Father Snoha said he was told that 18 of the city's 57 parishes do not exceed an attendance of 300, but the number of active parishioners is not the only factor being considered in decisions on closures.

Criteria for closure

The criteria include their proximity to other underused churches, the severeness of the Catholic clergy shortage, the need for and effectiveness of social ministries, the prospects for an eventual reversal of membership decline and the ability to meet financial obligations, such as the maintenance of large, old buildings.

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