Prayers of thanks for renewed church City Catholic parish renovated in project that took a decade

September 29, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The gleaming crucifix was back in its rightful place and memorial candles were burning yesterday as the faithful returned to St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church.

The upper chapel of the downtown Baltimore parish had been closed for nearly five months as craftsmen plastered and painted the 156-year-old church. It was the final phase of a $1.2 million renovation that took a decade.

During the transformation, a beloved skylight was restored, stained-glass windows were repaired and the pews were reconfigured to wrap around the altar. Services were held in the basement's lower chapel while the work was done.

"It looked like a child's fantasy come true," the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of the church, said of St. Vincent's appearance during the renovation. "There was so much scaffolding in here, it looked like the biggest jungle gym in the world."

To mark the reopening of the upper chapel, Lawrence held a solemn re-entry celebration yesterday that drew more than 400 people, from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania, to the 9: 30 a.m. Mass.

The two-hour service began in the lower chapel and proceeded upstairs with a cross-bearing ceremony, where cream-colored walls and pots of red, white and yellow flowers welcomed worshipers back.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" a woman asked her companion. "I can't get over how beautiful it looks."

As Lawrence blessed the altar with holy water, many who packed the refurbished pews whispered a prayer of thanks for the renovation of their historic church at 120 N. Front St., between the city's main post office building and the Jones Falls Expressway.

Several youngsters laughed as their pastor chatted with his "predecessors" -- parishioners dressed for the roles of the Rev. John Baptist Gildea, founder of the church; Sister Ann Alexis Shorb, superior of the Sisters of Charity orphanage and school; the Rev. Edmund Didier, seventh pastor of the parish; and the Rev. John Sinnott Martin, pastor from 1940 to 1965 -- about the evolution of the church.

St. Vincent de Paul, the oldest Catholic parish in continuous use in America's oldest archdiocese, was built by Gildea in 1841 for Baltimore's elite. An orphanage and school, headed by Shorb, was started under Gildea the same year. Gildea employed no architect; he drew the plans for St. Vincent's himself, inspired by Episcopal churches in the area.

"There was no stained glass, no stations of the cross, and certainly no statues," said Jerome Bird, 55, parish architecture committee chairman. "All of that came later."

In the 1890s, Didier ordered the first renovation of the church. A wealthy aristocrat, he commissioned vivid frescoes and a skylight of stained glass. Those architectural elements were removed by Martin 50 years later to commemorate the 100th anniversary.

"We literally stumbled upon pieces of the [skylight] during the renovation," Bird said. "Only a third of the pieces were still intact, but luckily it was enough to reconstruct the pattern."

The congregation applauded and as the skylight, now covered by the church roof, was illuminated by fluorescent lights, casting red and yellow hues over the parishioners.

As flute music floated up St. Vincent's high ceiling and around the rear balcony yesterday, parishioners reflected on the history of their beloved church and spoke in hushed voices about its most recent changes.

"One of the most important aspects of the renovation was the sense of process that surrounded it," said Daniel Gage Sr., 74, who started worshiping at St. Vincent's in 1986. "Everyone was involved. Many Catholic churches say 'we're going to do this or that, here's the bills.' It wasn't that way here. There's a sense of community and consensus at this parish that perhaps does not exist elsewhere."

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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