Churches getting sacked by games Stadium-area parishes find many stay home to avoid rush of fans

December 22, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,STAFF WRITER

Among the titanic battles of church and state, it rates barely a footnote.

But each Sunday at Memorial Stadium when the kickoff whistle blows at 1 p.m., it recalls a dispute that once pitted civil and ecclesiastic authority against the demigods of professional sports.

The winner? Sports, of course. But it wasn't until this fall that the losers, the area's houses of worship, were affected.

For years, events at Memorial Stadium on Sundays could not start earlier than 2 p.m. This was no mere ordinance; it was written into the City Charter at the behest of community and church leaders around the stadium. They were worried about parishioners getting in and out of services before 60,000 fans descended.

As a result, the Baltimore Colts were the only NFL team that couldn't start at the league's traditional 1 p.m. kickoff.

For most fans, this was just another of Baltimore's endearing quirks, like serving sauerkraut with turkey or bowling with softball-sized bowling balls. Retired broadcaster Vince Bagli's fond Colts retrospective was titled "Sundays at 2: 00 with the Colts."

But Colts owner Robert Irsay saw little humor in the blue law. He complained for years that the restriction kept his team off network television broadcasts, which are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. game starts. Colts games that ran long bumped into the 4 p.m. game.

William Donald Schaefer, as mayor, raised the issue several times with the City Council and neighborhood groups, but was unable to win any change for years. He finally prevailed in 1984 when the Colts appeared close to moving.

Even then he had to circumvent the City Council and the requirement for referendum by having the General Assembly pass a law. Lawmakers from outside the city had to be found to sponsor the bill when members of the city delegation balked.

The measure passed on March 19, providing for 1 p.m. game starts by June 1 of that year.

It was too late. The Colts moved to Indianapolis 10 days later.

The Orioles, who left Memorial Stadium for Camden Yards in 1992, took advantage of the law in the late 1980s, scheduling some Sunday games at 1: 35 p.m. But those games attracted a much smaller and more orderly crowd than Colts games, neighbors say.

The full impact of the earlier starts was not felt until the arrival of the Ravens in September. Church services have been rescheduled, funerals and special events moved to other facilities and programs suspended.

"It's been very difficult. It's cut our attendance terribly," said Carol Dausch, vice president of the church council at Our Savior Lutheran at 3301 The Alameda, a block from the stadium.

The church has rolled back its services to 10 a.m. and restricted Sunday school and other activities. But the turnout on game days still runs about a third below regular Sunday attendance, she said.

"We have to rush through the service to be done at 11 a.m.," Dausch said. The only bright side has been some money made by the church's youth group, which sells spaces in the church lot. Fans have been well behaved, setting up and breaking down their grills and cleaning up before heading to the games, Dausch said.

Nevertheless, the church will be glad to see the Ravens move to a downtown stadium in 1998.

"We'll be happy to see them leave," she said.

The inconvenience has been especially severe for the largely Korean-American congregation of St. Bernard's Catholic Church at 928 Gorsuch Ave. Because many parishioners work on Saturdays, they are unable to go to Mass the night before a game, said Pius Cho, a founder of the church and past president of its council.

"The 1 p.m. [start] created a lot of problems. It decreased attendance, and we are losing tremendous amounts of money," Cho said. Children's Masses and some programs have been juggled or canceled, he said.

The church, a major regional house of worship for Korean Catholics, drew as many as 500 worshipers to its Sunday Masses before the Ravens landed, Cho said. The prime, 11 a.m. Mass, however, has been moved because of the games to 10: 15 a.m., and attendance is off by about 25 percent, he said.

This was not the case when the Colts played at 2 p.m., said Cho, a semiretired physician who was a doctor for the team on game days.

Most St. Bernard's parishioners park on the street. Parking spaces begin to fill up several hours before game time. The city has given the church limited use of parking at the nearby City College High School on game days, but the spots have to be vacated by noon.

Jim Fendler, president of the Waverly Improvement Association, said the game time isn't as much a concern as the overall impact of the team on the neighborhood.

"The people who are fans enjoy it. Of course, there are people that don't appreciate the noise and traffic and public urination," said Fendler, who lives a block from the stadium and is an usher at the games.

The team, city and state have been cooperative in mitigating problems, he said. A task force meets monthly to address concerns. And the Ravens catered the association's joint holiday party with the Better Waverly Association this month.

"For 10 games this season and next, we can put up with it," he said.

David Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore at 3401 Old York Road, said the city has been more attentive to the area's residents than its churches. Only one meeting was held specifically for area churches and there has been little follow-up, he said.

Passes were printed to permit parishioners to pass police barricades on streets surrounding churches, but they weren't made available until a week before the first game, he said.

"It's been very frustrating," Smith said.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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