Church pegs its fate to 'Pennies to Heaven'

August 01, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Parishioners at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church are asking people to open their change purses to help keep the 121-year-old Greenmount Avenue landmark open.

After Mass yesterday in the old building, congregants opened a drive to raise at least $500,000 -- much of it in pennies -- for desperately needed repairs, including a new roof.

They hope such a sum will convince the Archdiocese of Baltimore that their church should be taken off the "endangered list." The archdiocese said earlier this year that 16 churches were targeted for reorganization or closure.

Parish leaders said they are organizing the eight-week "Pennies to Heaven" campaign because they do not want the archdiocese to abandon the troubled Greenmount community or close the church some worshipers travel 15 miles to reach.

Parishioners held up signs yesterday proclaiming, "Save the church, not the pennies" and "Let's make cents," to start the campaign to "help St. Ann's stay in the 'hood." The church, with a red iron anchor resting in front, is at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street.

"It would sure give us a better position of negotiating from," said Erich W. March, campaign chairman and general manager of March Funeral Homes.

He said the church chose pennies because "it's a cultural phenomenon; people hoard pennies."

Mr. March has been attending St. Ann's since the age of 3 and was educated by nuns at its now-closed elementary school.

The appeal for pennies on the doorsteps of the church tugged at the heartstrings of Henry Simms, who saw the plea on the noon news at his Randallstown home and was outside the church before 1 p.m. emptying his plastic barrel of pennies.

"I got married here in '68, and every one of my kids has been baptized here," said the 51-year-old father of four.

As he poured hundreds of copper coins into a 5-gallon jug, Mr. Simms said he and his wife, Mary, are saving change to visit a son in California, and they will get there without those pennies.

"The congregation of St. Ann is unanimously opposed to relinquishing the Greenmount neighborhood and the surrounding community to the scourge of drugs and hopelessness and vows to continue to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless and maintain the well for the spiritually thirsty that has existed for over 120 years," Mr. March said in a fund-raising letter yesterday.

Parishioners will ask neighborhood stores to set up penny collection jars and also will stand outside the church every Saturday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to accept donations. Harbor Bank of Maryland will count the money and keep the account.

Other parish members are taking jugs, donated by Aqua Cool of Jessup, to work. "Hopefully it will get filled within the week," Ron Dent, 43, sales manager of Furniture Quarters, said of his jug. Mr. Dent, who grew up attending St. Ann's and now lives in Glen Burnie, said, "We left the area, but we never left the church."

The financially troubled but beautiful church suffers the same ills as other city churches -- shrinking congregations that cannot afford to maintain the structures. The congregation would like to use the pennies collected to fix the church roof, whose leaks have created a backdrop of mold for a statue of St. Joseph.

With a congregation of about 300, St. Ann's has no pastor. It uses priests from other churches.

Myrtle Stanley, 65, who works for St. Ann's as a pastoral associate, said the Catholic hierarchy should view St. Ann's as a model church with a mission of saving a problem city neighborhood.

Its four buildings, though in disrepair, house a youth center and give community groups -- among them the police-community relations committee and Narcotics Anonymous support groups -- a meeting site. What once was the church school is a homeless shelter. Parish volunteers run a food pantry, serve as mentors to local boys and march against drugs.

"I believe that God needs a presence in the inner city. That is where the greatest need is," said church deacon James Bee, 51, who comes with his family from the Hamilton neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore to worship at St. Ann's. "It's a sign of hope that with all the drugs and all the problems here, that God still has hope here."

"If you close this church, you have a dead community," said Eddie Fentress, 66, who lives around the corner from St. Ann's and has attended Mass since the time years ago when blacks were relegated to the back of the chapel.

"If they close the doors, we will praise God on the corner," said Brenda Fletcher, 38, indicating she intends to keep worshiping in the neighborhood. Ms. Fletcher returns weekly to her old neighborhood to sing in St. Ann's choir even though she lives a few blocks from St. Thomas More Church in Northeast Baltimore, near the city-county border.

St. Ann's opened in 1873, courtesy of Capt. William Kennedy, a seafaring, God-fearing man who in 1872 donated the land and $50,000 for a church named for the mother of the Virgin Mary and patron saint of sailors in distress.

An enduring story has it that Captain Kennedy's cargo ship was trapped in a storm near Vera Cruz, Mexico, and the young captain vowed that if he was spared he would help build a church. The wind died down and the ship -- with only one anchor holding it -- was safe. Mr. Kennedy left the sea in 1834 and married into a wealthy Baltimore family.

The anchor from his ship, which parishioners said reminds them they are anchored in faith and also shows the neighborhood that St. Ann's is an anchor of the community, is the one resting outside the church.

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