Neighbors On Memory Lane

Friendship: Despite Leaving Their Irish-american Neighborhood Decades Ago, St. John's Oldtimers Keep Alive Their Heritage And The Bonds They Forged During Their Younger Years In Baltimore.

April 29, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The Murphys, Mulgrews, Kellys and O'Conors are long gone from the once-bustling Irish-American enclave in Baltimore's famous 10th Ward.

But, for the past 30 years, the families have been keeping alive memories of the old neighborhood that centered around St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church at Valley and Eager streets behind the state penitentiary.

And not just on St. Patrick's Day.

These lifelong friends -- who call themselves the St. John's Oldtimers -- gather by the hundreds at monthly meetings in Parkville. Hold benefit events, such as a recent luau, for St. Elizabeth's School and Rehabilitation Center on Argonne Drive. Take annual trips to Ocean City and elsewhere.

They simply don't want to let go of the heritage that shaped their lives.

"It really is to preserve St. John's memory," said Emma Vogel, 61, who grew up on Valley Street and now lives in Harford County. "We realized we weren't going to see each other again. So we wanted to stay close to the neighbors from the old neighborhood."

A lifetime ago, the Irish men and women drank 5-cent Cokes at the Tiptop restaurant at Greenmount Avenue and Presstman Street, watched Saturday-afternoon cowboy movies for a dime at the old Presstman movie theater and faithfully attended St. John church, where many were baptized, confirmed and married.

The East Baltimore church shared boundaries with the city's powerful 10th political ward, which served as a springboard for such favorite sons as Herbert R. O'Conor, who became governor of Maryland and a U.S. senator, and Ambrose J. Kennedy, another congressman.

Decline of church

But the church, which at one time had 10,000 parishioners, closed in 1966 with only 250 members, succumbing to shifting demographics.

The parish enjoyed its heyday in the early part of the century, and began losing families to the suburbs in the mid-1940s. At the same time, houses were torn down to make room for the Latrobe Homes, a public housing project. And more and more non-Catholic families moved into the neighborhood.

Today, many of the Oldtimers, who are scattered throughout the state, are retired, widowed or deceased. The oldest member is 94.

"This is our old-age club," joked Joe Loiero, 64, who married his childhood sweetheart, Nancy Knott, in 1955 at St. John church.

But as the years pass, the members realize they need to get the next generation involved.

"We're losing too many older people and not getting enough younger ones," said Donald McCrory, 78, enjoying ham, string beans and pudding at the recent luau in St. Elizabeth's gym.

The Oldtimers often recall their school days when they wore blue-and-white uniforms to the Catholic grade school run by the Sisters of Charity.

"The ones with the sailboats," laughed Agnes Johnson, 75, referring to the nuns' large headgear.

In addition to education, the sisters were responsible for guiding their young charges on the road to heaven -- although the children didn't always understand the direction.

"They were strict. We'd have to leave the movies on Saturdays to go to novenas for a happy death," recalled Mary Margaret Crogan, 69. "I'd say to my mother, `We haven't even started living and we have to pray for death.' "

The Oldtimers also remember ice-cream-and-watermelon parties on hot summer nights, sleigh-riding along the 1300 block of Valley St., sitting on the white-marble steps and blocks-long May processions, where the girls dressed in white.

"You didn't have to worry about locking your doors," Johnson said. "It was a neighborhood that really stuck together."

And the former residents still do.

Members of the Oldtimers group, which includes about 800 families, watch out for each other, even now that they live miles apart. When Vogel's husband was dying of cancer three years ago, the group raised $10,000 to help the family through difficult times.

"This club cares for their people," said George Wedge, 42, of Parkville, who married into the organization through Johnson's daughter, Anne, 38. "Now I'm part of the St. John's family."

A badge of honor

To many, the connection is a badge of honor.

After all, their ancestors -- poor Irish immigrants who settled in the area after fleeing their country's revolution in 1849 -- helped to build St. John church with donations of physical labor.

The grand stone edifice designed by prominent Baltimore architect J. Crawford Neilson was dedicated in 1856 with a Mass offered at the "most beautiful of all the altars in the Archdiocese," according to a magazine article.

Because of the church's proximity to the 10th Ward, the area often was called St. John's 10th Ward.

"Tenth Ward Irishmen considered politics secondary only to religion," wrote Oldtimers president Hank Arnold in a history of the group. "It was once said, to live in the Tenth Ward, you had to be three things Irish, Catholic and a registered Democrat."

Vogel described 10th Ward residents as "poor but hard-working. There were a lot of policemen, firemen, sanitary workers and steel-mill workers."

"We lived between poverty and death," said Bernie Waldner, 63, Oldtimers vice president, invoking a long-standing joke about the neighborhood's location between Green Mount Cemetery and a convent housed by Little Sisters of the Poor.

At their monthly Sunday meetings, the Oldtimers exude an energy that only people who have known each other for years can share. Almost 300 members show up at a hall near Taylor Avenue and Harford Road for an afternoon of catching-up, drinking beer and soda, and smoking.

"It's wonderful to have the feeling that nothing bad can happen to me," said Vogel, wearing a green T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Ireland," at a recent meeting. "They all will be there for me."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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