Corpus Christi: a survivor

Baltimore Glimpses

August 09, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

THESE ARE tough times for many inner-city churches, particularly the 16 Catholic churches targeted for reorganization or closure by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Shrinking congregations leave many unable to afford to maintain their buildings, some of which are more than a century old.

However, at least one venerable city Catholic church stands out as an example to others that it is possible to go through troubled times and survive. That church is the 103-year-old Corpus Christi, located on West Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill.

Known for its magnificent clock tower, Gothic Revival architecture and Florentine glass mosaics on its ceiling, the church was a gift of the Jenkins family, which has historic ties to Maryland's business and philanthropic communities. The family also donated the land for the nearby Maryland Institute.

Thomas and Louisa Jenkins' five children had the church built in honor of their deceased parents. They hired the most noted church architect of the time, Patrick Charles Keeley of New York, to design the structure. He modeled it after the Gothic churches of medieval Europe.

The church flourished until the early 1940s, and then declined, according to church history. In 1946, Rev. William A. Neligan, then the church's priest, wrote to Archbishop Francis P. Keough: "Without wishing to be a Gloomy Gus . . . Corpus Christi has reached its lowest ebb. On Sundays we have only 600 persons attending all the Masses. . . ."

In the late 1950s, parishioners raised funds to renovate the church and it was rejuvenated.

Today, Corpus Christi -- which counts 350 families among its parishioners -- is a Bolton Hill landmark that is rich in history and in ethnic and racial diversity. Like many city churches, Corpus Christi has no priest. It uses priests from other churches.

Since 1986, Sister Jane Coyle has been pastoral administrator, the first woman to serve in that capacity in Maryland.

Sr. Coyle proudly points to the church's ongoing programs as evidence of the church's vibrancy, including: feeding the homeless, vacation Bible school and counseling in health and family matters. "Corpus Christi has known some bad times, but I think -- thank the Lord -- that the bad times are behind us," she said.

As for the Jenkins family, their contribution is well known among the parishioners. In fact, there's a reminder: Thomas and Louisa Jenkins are buried in a chapel on one side of the church's altar and several of their children are buried in a chapel on the other side of the altar.

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