The bells that toll for Tivoli

BALTIMORE CLIMPSES

September 05, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

If you are in Bolton Hill any evening around 7 p.m. you will hear the notes of the ancient hymn "De Profundis" sounded out by the bells of Corpus Christi church at Mt. Royal and Lafayette avenues.

The bells mourn the loss of the congregants who drowned July 25, 1883, at a church picnic at Tivoli Beach, down the Patapsco (where Sparrows Point is today). Those innocent picnickers, on an outing to raise money for the fledgling church founded a year earlier, were attempting to board a barge for the moonlight ride back to Baltimore, when the pier they were standing on collapsed.

Sixty-three people sank to their death -- 34 women, 23 children, six men. The city was plunged into mourning.

Tivoli, also known as Holly Grove, was about 15 miles below Baltimore. It was a favorite spot for family outings, offering fine bathing, plenty of shade only a short and pleasant ride from the inner harbor. Early that Sunday morning the picnickers boarded a barge, bearable for a short trip.

Perhaps because the waning moon would not rise until 9 p.m. and the young people wanted a moonlight sail home, the barge was not due to leave the wharf at Tivoli until between 9 and 10 p.m. Reading the account more than a century later, one can understand how tired and sleepy the young mothers and children must have been, and why they crowded the wharf when they saw the tug and the barge approaching.

Newspaper accounts reported that between 200 and 300 people rushed onto the wooden pier. There was an ominous cracking of boards, an agonizing moment as the structure swayed and sagged and then in an instant collapsed and sank, taking those on it into the dark waters.

A year earlier, only a few days before her death, June 6, 1882, Louisa Carell Jenkins asked her children to erect a church in memory of their late father, Thomas Courtney Jenkins. The children accepted the challenge and brought into being the new Corpus Christi parish in Bolton Hill (then called "Depot").

The Jenkins family engaged one of the foremost church architects in America at the time, Patrick Charles Keeley, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and settled on a style called "decorated Gothic" of the early 13th century.

The church flourished until the early 1940s, then declined. It was renovated and rejuvenated in the 1950s and today is rich in history and ethnic diversity.

Next time you are in Bolton Hill in the early evening, listen for the haunting bells of "De Profundis." Think of the founders, of the matrtyrs of Tivoli, and of those who have carried on since and who have made Corpus Christi one of the city's most treasured legacies.

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