Church adaptations considered

May 19, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Architectural preservationists, as well as parishioners, are worried about the proposal to reorganize or close 16 Roman Catholic churches in Baltimore -- a move that could rob the city of historic landmarks and "signs of hope" in decaying neighborhoods.

"This is a major event in the history of this city," Charles B. Duff Jr., president of the nonprofit Jubilee Baltimore Inc., said yesterday. "Such buildings are important cultural resources for the neighborhoods."A key question: Can the churches continue to be used for worship or be adapted, along with their convents, rectories and schools, for other uses?

In some cities, churches have been converted into restaurants, residences and cultural centers. And in Baltimore, convents and schools have been turned into apartment houses for the elderly.

Jubilee Baltimore has been active in renovating religious buildings for new uses in the city. And it hopes to persuade officials of the Catholic archdiocese to draw on its expertise as planning for the restructuring of urban parishes proceeds, Mr. Duff said.

Another organization willing to help the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore with decisions affecting its older churches is the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places.

The Rev. David C. Casey, a director of the national Partners group as well as project manager for Jubilee Baltimore, said the local Catholic leaders face painful decisions.

"I have respect for the archdiocesan planners and the difficulties they face," he said. "They have already shown that they are not being heavy-handed about church closings the way Catholic officials were in Detroit and Chicago."

Controversial decisions to close large numbers of underused churches quickly in those two cities sparked bitter recriminations from the targeted neighborhoods.

Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard, who is in charge of the urban sector of the sprawling Baltimore archdiocese, has said that he wants to "avoid a Detroit or a Chicago" here.

"These aren't a bunch of bad guys saying, 'What can we do to make people unhappy?' " Mr. Casey said of the church planners in Baltimore. "But that is not to say the reorganization of parishes won't be painful.

"And it is important to bear in mind," he added, "that one of the worst things you can do to a neighborhood is to have boarded up, vandalized buildings. Older churches are often the way people identify neighborhoods. They are often the only sign of hope in struggling areas of a city competing with the suburbs to survive."

The difficult decisions faced by the church point to the need for a local organization solely concerned with protection and stewardship of religious properties, Mr. Casey said. Such programs exist in other cities with architecturally important church buildings.

These include the "clearinghouses for information about architecture, energy conservation, maintenance, financial resources and fund raising" operated by Chicago's Inspired Partnership, Boston's Historic Boston, Philadelphia's Historic Preservation Corp. and New York's Landmarks Commission, a statewide group, he said.

The endangered list made public this week by the Baltimore archdiocese includes some of the city's most architecturally significant churches, preservationists say.

These neighborhood anchors include St. Alphonsus at Park Avenue and Saratoga Street downtown, St. Mary Star of the Sea and Holy Cross in South Baltimore, St. Patrick on Broadway, St. Stanislaus Kostka in Fells Point and St. Michael the Archangel at Lombard and Wolfe streets. They were all built for much larger congregations than they now serve.

The list of 16 underused and financially troubled churches includes large ones that might be replaced by smaller, more manageable buildings, Bishop Ricard said Tuesday. He did not single out any on the list for this solution.

Bishop Ricard denied that any firm decision has been made to close any of the churches among the 16, but pastors at six have already been told to expect it.

The details of the restructuring plan will be decided by November and the "difficult decisions" will go into effect within a year, he said.

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