EXILED from his Eden When Father Michael J. Roach raised his voice against the diocese's reorganization, he was sent from his flock in Baltimore to the quiet pastures of Carroll County

May 28, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

The priest is back in town, at least for this day. He is with the flock he gave 14 years of his life to, the people of Hollins Park and Poppleton assembled before him: the young men with knotty arms and cascading hair, the weepy women bereft of all certitudes, their tumbling children. He misses these people with the unfocused pain of a ghost limb.

Father Michael J. Roach is immense upon the altar at St. Peter the Apostle Church on Poppleton Street in Baltimore.

Immensity defines his voice, which he sends into every corner of the church. This is "the mother church" of the west side, built in 1842. It is a columned grandeur, St. Peter's, but it is not big enough to contain the priest's oratory, which flows out into the golden dust of the morning. Roach is celebrating the life and death of one of those neighborhood saints who made him understand why, 27 years ago, he became a priest.

He speaks over the remains of Virginia Pilkerton. She came to this raucous enclave in 1919 when it teemed with Irish and Lithuanian railroad workers. Their meager posterity live on here. The house she moved into with her parents when she was 3 was the one she died in.

Roach came to St. Peter's in 1981 and found more than he expected. The parish, he was told, was culturally deprived. "In fact," he says, "it is a very rich culture. I would see things I hadn't seen since I was a kid."

Like?

"Funeral practices. People wear black. Whole families showing up at anniversary Masses. The wonderful floral arrangements: a bleeding heart, a telephone arrangement, with 'Jesus Called' written across it. Some people's families have been there since the houses were built on Pratt and Lombard. They are the toughest people I ever knew. They'd tell you their stories. By God, you'd weep!"

Virginia Pilkerton died on Good Friday.

"What an appropriate time to go home to God," Roach says to the family and friends scattered on the pews beneath the painted ceiling.

She was a light shining on Lombard Street for 80 years, he says, enduring pain and deprivation and happiness as they came to her, in their turn. She taught her family the ceremonies they needed to learn, especially about the end of things.

"She taught us how to die," says the priest.

About a year ago, in the same church, Roach eulogized Betty Jean Farace. "Big Bet," as she was fondly called, had cooked in rectory kitchens throughout Southwest Baltimore. At one point Roach stepped away the altar and opened his log-like arms as if to embrace all her grieving adult children. Don't weep, he admonished them.

"Big Bet's in heaven now," he said, pointing in that direction, "She's cooking for the king!"

They wept even more.

There are people in southwest Baltimore, it is said, who would bet that one of Father Roach's funeral eulogies could get a poor sinner paroled from Purgatory. Maybe, but it hasn't shortened his own time.

When he is not in the city visiting a hospital, funeral establishment, school or one of the homely parishes like St. Peter's or St. Jerome's on Hamburg Streets, Roach can be found in Manchester, a tranquil hamlet in Carroll County. There he is responsible to a congregation of 900 families attached to St. Bartholomew's Roman Catholic Church, built by Redemptorist missionaries in 1864 on a road winding out of town. He lives here alone.

"I hate it. I talk to myself. I hate to come home to an empty house."

He reads a lot.

"Constantly," he says. "It keeps me from the Devil's Tabernacle." Television.

Posted to the country

He has resigned himself to his transfer from the city, though part of him has yet to yield. How long's it been?

"Two years and three months," comes his answer quickly enough to suggest he tallies the weeks and days as well.

Roach extends backward in his chair, feet up on the desk leaf. They seem small for such a huge man. His face is large, too; his silvery beard flows down in waves off it, like fast water over rocks.

On the wall of his minute office is a painting of the B&O roundhouse on Pratt Street (now a museum), a gift from a dying parishioner. It reminds the priest of where he is by showing him, with every glance, where he would rather be: amid the "decaying elegance" of the church on Poppleton Street, with its enclosed garden where he grew an enormous sunflower.

Outside, spring is entrenched; there is a faint buzz over the fragrant grass. It is a serene, bucolic place, its hills clotted by dark green trees with, here and there, a farmhouse among them.

You can tell Roach is unhappy in this place by the alacrity with which he praises it: "I like the culture of the county. It's a religious culture. Everybody's got a church."

Most are Lutherans or Methodists, and his job is to bring up his side. "Catholics," he says, "are the new kids on the block."

Thirty years ago there weren't a hundred Catholics here. At the turn of the century there were none. The church yard has barely 35 graves.

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