On a hill above busy Wilkens Avenue, the granite and buff-brick church with its red-tiled dome and green-patinated cupola stands out among the buildings of Charlestown Retirement Community.
Unknown to many of the thousands of motorists who pass, however, is that below the 68-foot-high dome is one of the area's best kept secrets: an architectural and artistic masterpiece, the Renaissance-style Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels.
"It's Baltimore's treasure of art, mosaics, marble and stained glass, unrivaled in this country -- and very few people know it's here," said the Rev. Leo J. Larrivee, 43, who came as a seminarian in 1969 to the Catonsville campus when it was still St. Charles College and Seminary.
Father Larrivee said he was nervous his first day, "but when I first walked in this chapel, the feeling came over me that everything would be all right. I still have that feeling here."
As for its relative anonymity among local historic structures, he said, "You have to remember that it was the seminary chapel until 1977. Then it was empty for five years, until 1982 when Charlestown was starting."
Open to public today
Father Larrivee, who returned as Catholic chaplain a year ago, conducts tours for Charlestown residents. The chapel will open to the public from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. today as part of an open house of local churches sponsored by the Catonsville Ministerium.
Romanesque in structure and Italian Renaissance in style, the chapel is in the shape of a cross. Fifty-five feet wide and 140 feet long, it was designed by American architects Francis Murphy and Frederick Law Olmstead Sr. The chapel copies no particular European church but incorporates features of several.
Robert and Elizabeth Jenkins endowed the chapel in memory of their parents, Alfred and Elizabeth Jenkins, whose fortune came from banking and silversmithing.
The Jenkinses were related to the Rev. Oliver Jenkins, first president of St. Charles in 1848. The parents and children lie entombed beneath the marble floor of a tiny memorial chapel behind the main altar.
"Robert and Elizabeth, who never married, traveled extensively in Europe," Father Larrivee said. "They took the best feature of every church they visited, so this is the best of the best."
For example, "various experts have come here and said the matched marble panels are rivaled only by the Library of Congress," he said.
"You can always tell when somebody is a first-time visitor; they spend their time looking around."
Cardinal James Gibbons dedicated the chapel in 1915, but it was not completed for many years. The chapel is brilliant with stained glass, including three rose windows. The last of the colorful windows wasn't installed until the 1950s.
After each phase of construction or decoration, "we had to wait for the endowment to build up again before we could go on to the next," said the Rev. John W. Bowen, 70, archivist of the Sulpician Fathers, who own the chapel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Abundance of marble
Bancel LaFarge, an American artist, fashioned the mosaics, many with fields of sparkling gold, Father Bowen said. John J. Earley of Washington was the sculptor of the main altar, and Charles J. Connick of Boston designed the stained glass windows. There is an abundance of delicately carved multicolored Carrara marble, and the altar has mosaic highlights inlaid in white marble.
The Sulpician Fathers of St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park kept the chapel when they sold the rest of the 105-acre St. Charles campus to the retirement community. Since then, they have invested more than $1 million in improvements to the chapel -- now designated an independent mission church. Another $500,000 is needed.
Earlier this month, Father Larrivee launched a fund-raising campaign. Pressing needs include repair of the 2,200-pipe Freres Casavant organ from Montreal, which was installed in 1919 and has not been overhauled since the 1950s; painting the chapel interior; renewing the interior lighting and cleaning and repairing the mosaics.
Although it remains a consecrated Roman Catholic Church, the chapel has become Charlestown's religious and cultural center. Catholic, Protestant and other ecumenical services are held in -- the chapel where, since 1989, Sunday afternoon concerts of classical and sacred music have been organized by Charlestown residents and performed by musical organizations in the area.
"The whole experience there is pleasurable," said Tom Hall, musical director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. "It has marvelous acoustics, and as an intimate space it allows us to do a repertoire we couldn't do in a large symphony hall."
Virginia D. Moore, 83, head of the residents' concert committee, said the concert budget rose from $7,000 in 1989 to $20,000 this year, from grants and contributions, which paid for 27 orchestral and vocal concerts. "It is an inspiring setting for the concerts," said Mrs. Moore, a retired educator.
'Conducive to worship'