St. Alphonsus Marks 150 Years

March 13, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

For older Roman Catholics in the happy crowd at St. Alphonsus Church yesterday, the bells, incense, Gregorian chant and banks of flickering candles were reminders of what their worship was like before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Presiding at the multicultural celebration of the 150th anniversary of the soaring brick edifice at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue, Cardinal William H. Keeler said the place and the event were "architecturally and historically full of significance."

Until five weeks ago, the building was on a list of churches considered underused, which archdiocesan planners had threatened to close. It is without a pastor.

But the cardinal said of yesterday's rich menu of music -- not just the chant but parts of a Schubert Mass and German, Lithuanian and English hymns -- that these "reminders of different aspects of our history" linked the past of "an architectural prize of the city of Baltimore" with its future.

His recent decision to designate St. Alphonsus "an archdiocesan shrine," he said, will mean that "as the liturgy is developed and the tours are planned, this church will become better known across our land." Full weekday and weekend schedules of services, with visiting priests, will continue it as "a powerhouse of prayer," he said.

With its rose windows of brilliant blue, lingering fragrance of burning beeswax, polychrome Gothic arches and row upon row of plaster saints reaching to the heavens, the structure is a throwback to another era of Catholicism.

Parishioner Lillian Walsh and the Rev. Casimir A. Pugevicius, a former associate pastor who offers Sunday Masses in Lithuanian, have been working on a history of St. Alphonsus. The Gothic Revival church was designed by Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long Jr.

Ms. Walsh and Father Pugevicius have documented its various transitions:

It was first a church for German immigrants, built on land that Revolutionary War hero John Eager Howard had deeded to "German Gentlemen of Baltimore Co." in 1799. It later became a religious and educational haven for Lithuanians. It also has been a center of Novenas to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, attracting downtown office workers and shoppers seeking spiritual comfort since 1935.

Its most famous pastor was a Bohemian immigrant and early leader of the Redemptorist order of priests, St. John Neumann.

He was rector at St. Alphonsus six years after the church was dedicated in 1845. It was there that Father Neumann was consecrated bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. He was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1976.

Father Pugevicius noted that another member of the Redemptorist order, the Rev. Francis Xavier Seelos, who was rector of St. Alphonsus between 1854 and 1857, has been proposed for sainthood.

"Should he ever be canonized," the priest said, "St. Alphonsus may be the only parish church in the world to boast two former pastors in the canon of saints."

Assisting Cardinal Keeler at yesterday's Mass were Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard; the Rev. John P. Barbernitz, former pastor; the Rev. Paul Gabriel Holthaus, present associate pastor; Deacon Hugh Mills; and Father Pugevicius. All wore vestments of Lenten purple.

Seven other priests, and three women in traditional Lithuanian dress, were in the processions of cross and candle bearers to and from the altar. Members of the Knights of Columbus formed an honor guard.

Two choirs provided the music. At the conclusion of the Mass, Cardinal Keeler led applause for their efforts as well as for representatives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who have historical ties to St. Alphonsus, and representatives of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, who operate a hospice for AIDS patients near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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