Imperiled parishes await new cardinal's attention

November 24, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

In Rome, a joyful William Henry Keeler will be rewarded with a cardinal's red hat. But there are those within his Baltimore flock who are deeply worried.

Earlier this year, a long-anticipated list of city parish churches was posted. That schedule, compiled by zealous, cost-cutting local church bureaucrats, said that more than a dozen places could be closed or merged because of declining attendance, poor maintenance or lack of priests.

Many of the marked churches sit squarely in the poorest and most unloved parts of Baltimore, neighborhoods whose main source of stability is the core of God-fearing people who believe in and support their sacred sanctuaries.

Since the time this controversial and emotional announcement was made, there have been dozens of local meetings to discuss what has been euphemistically called a restructuring. People who are not particularly concerned about the urban church have been viewing this reduction with a fatalistic eye -- as a necessary ill imposed by a dying and troubled old city.

The closing discussion has been muddied with pages of bureaucrats' pieties, but the message is clear: We are clearing out of many tough Baltimore neighborhoods. Listed on the hit list are churches in Walbrook; West, Southwest and Northwest Baltimore; Upper Fells Point; East Baltimore; and on Greenmount Avenue.

The projected action seems oddly discordant from an institution headed by the cardinal-designate, a solidly competent man who personally admires and respects the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

He is a warm and personally charming cleric, an accomplished diplomat who travels easily within the international circles of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let us hope that our new cardinal's statesmanship will shine through and overcome this icy threat to the city posed by his strident underlings who seem to favor balance-sheet efficiency over the message of the gospels.

Baltimore is a city of long loyalties and traditions.

The archdiocese has been conservative in closing its churches. Perhaps it learned a lesson: When the doors closed, the damaged inflicted on the neighborhoods was deep.

Probably no individual loved Southwest Baltimore as much as did the late Martin Flynn, whose old rowhouse home overlooked the B&O Railroad's old Mount Clare Shops. He watched, in horror, as the archdiocese put the locks on Fourteen Holy Martyrs Church at Mount and Lombard some 25 years ago.

"It killed the neighborhood. It died," he often said.

Mr. Flynn's assessment is all too true. This part of town lost one of its most fervent advocates. Embittered congregants gave up hope for the neighborhood when the spiritual institution said we don't need you anymore.

Recently, another parish was called to close its doors. This was St. Katharine of Siena, in East Baltimore, at Preston near Luzerne. In its last days, it served a small congregation but was finally closed, even though its church school stayed open and continues to educate the children of the Collington Square neighborhood.

St. Katharine's neighborhood was poor and troubled a decade ago. Today, it is an all-out crack cocaine war zone. The open drug-selling markets became so bad here that the Israel Baptist Church organized its members to stage daylong street-corner prayer rallies. These people bravely fired moral bullets at the local drug profiteers from the corner of Milton and Preston.

Did it do any good? Well, at least a vocal band took to the pavement and shouted collectively, "We're not selling out. We won't be defeated."

Anyone who knows how Baltimore neighborhoods function looks the imperiled parishes as imparting a stability, a sense of permanence that most secular institutions lack. If nothing else, it has been the tradition for the archdiocese to remain steady throughout the good and rocky times in the belief that people matter more than the economic fortunes of the neighborhoods where they reside.

Often, the most courageous people in the city are those who do not run away from its problems. They are tough. They remain in place. Their presence helps their neighbors. And they look out rTC for each other.

That is the tradition of Baltimore, an unpretentious city that plods along in its own way. Baltimore is also a city that believes in keeping the faith, staying loyal to its own, often long beyond the time limits that a less patient place would allow.

Let's hope that our new cardinal is not a defeatist and works his skills to quiet the negative spirit pervading his own bureaucracy.

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