Tension on Holy Hill Monastery: An emotional legal battle rages in Cumberland between preservationists and Roman Catholic officials who want to raze an unused monastery.

June 17, 1996|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- For more than a century, the austere brick building overlooking Cumberland served as a quiet bastion of religious contemplation and worship -- a self-sufficient world of brown-robed men.

The Capuchin friars and their gardens, orchards and vineyards have long disappeared from the hillside, known as Holy Hill. And so has any semblance of the peace the mid-19th-century monastery once offered the parishioners of the adjoining Saints Peter and Paul Church.

The 22,000-square-foot building, abandoned in 1986 and decaying, is at the center of an emotional battle between preservationists and Roman Catholic officials, who want to raze it for a church addition and parking lot.

"There's a tradition around here of tearing things down and putting up a little plaque," said Dan Coxe, a Baltimore police officer who retired to Cumberland. "I do believe we ought to keep the landmarks we have left. There are so few of them around."

Preservationists thought the battle was won last fall when the city's Historic Preservation Commission, which must approve any changes to buildings in the area, rejected the church's request for a permit to demolish the monastery. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which owns the monastery, filed suit in federal court, claiming the denial was unconstitutional.

Now, the conflict appears to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal judge in Maryland last week struck down as unconstitutional a federal law -- the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- that allows a church to make its own decisions on its property.

Passed by Congress in 1993, the law prohibits federal, state and local governments from interfering with religious activities unless the government could show a "compelling interest."

But in ruling on the Cumberland case, U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin said Congress overstepped its authority, and the act deprives courts of the power of reviewing key constitutional questions relating to the separation of church and state.

"We think the judge is right. The law is unconstitutional," said H. ,, Jack Price, Cumberland's solicitor. "We will continue to assert our position if the church appeals."

Bill Blaul, an archdiocese spokesman, said an appeal appears likely, but which course church officials will pursue has not been decided. The church, he said, may appeal the federal judge's decision, proceed on other grounds, or both.

Constitutional matters aside, the battle has reopened painful wounds from the city's not-so-proud preservation past and created tension within the 1,200-family parish.

Many here remember the city's failure to save the Queen City Station Hotel, a grand 19th-century establishment that once stood downtown along the railroad tracks and was the social center of Cumberland. The hotel was torn down in the 1970s and replaced by a post office.

"There has to be some thought for the future," said Calvin Middleton, who runs a booth in a downtown antique market. "There's nothing left in this town. The manufacturing is gone. This is a service-industry town.

"They're building a resort at Rocky Gap [State Park] to bring JTC people here. So what are you going to have for people to do when they come to town?"

Some see the church's stance as unholy. The monastery, built in the early 1850s, adjoins the Peter and Paul church, constructed a few years earlier. St. John Neumann, the first American male saint, selected the site of the church and, it is believed, helped design the building.

Although Neumann, a Bohemian immigrant and early leader of the Redemptorist order of priests (the first residents of the monastery), has no such ties to the monastery, he is known to have made two visits in the late 1850s.

The monastery "is part of the Catholic tradition in the area," said Tim Machado, a parishioner whose studies in architecture have given him a greater appreciation of the building. "It's a symbol of religious freedom. Maryland was the first state to have that. I think it's a beautiful landmark."

The church and monastery sit within the Washington Street historic district, a tree-lined section of Victorian, Greek Revival and other 19th-century homes and churches near downtown. Maryland has designated the hillside district as part of the Canal Place Heritage Area, a section along the C&O Canal that will be restored as a tourist attraction.

"The monastery is of historical significance," said Michael Day, chief of the Office of Preservation Services for the Maryland Historical Trust. "It is a landmark building. It is part of the historical ambience of Cumberland. To demolish it would be a severe loss."

Church officials disagree.

"There's a misplaced sense of history," Blaul said. "The monastery was a dormitory for an order of religious men. It was not a cut-stone medieval monastery. It was a brick, wood-frame structure, typical of any structure erected in that era. It's no more historical than a public high school built in the 1960s. It's typical of the era.

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