Church takes Easter to streets

Parish offers hope to impoverished area

April 04, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

From a small fire burning in a bowl in the back of a darkened East Baltimore church during last night's Vigil of the Resurrection, the Rev. Scott Bailey lights the Easter candle, a symbol of hope and new life.

One by one, the parishioners of St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, a small congregation struggling to survive in the midst of the violence and poverty of the neighborhood outside, light tapers from the Easter candle and the dark sanctuary begins to glow with warm light.

As St. Wenceslaus celebrates the Easter triduum, the rituals commemorating the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are no mere abstractions. Rather, they have become more relevant as the church tries to bring hope to a neighborhood where the sound of gunshots is background noise and it's hard to find a corner without drug dealers.

"Downtrodden," said Bob Lacy, 44, offering his one-word description of the neighborhood around St. Wenceslaus.

"It's all the key words that Mother Teresa used," said Lacy, a live-in volunteer at the AIDS hospice connected to the parish that is run by the late nun's Missionaries of Charity. "Disenfranchised, the poorest of the poor. They're right here in this neighborhood."

But those who keep coming to the services call the Romanesque church at Ashland and Collington avenues home.

"I feel complete here," said Evelyn Thames, 52, a member for 25 years. "There is a reaching out to the neighborhood. I know that's my calling in life, and [the church and parishioners] seem to fulfill it here."

St. Wenceslaus -- run by Redemptorist priests since 1882 -- is a symbol of the death and resurrection that Easter celebrates. It was once a thriving ethnic parish, the center of a Bohemian neighborhood north of Johns Hopkins Hospital called Swampdoodle. Over the years, the neighborhood changed, and most of the Bohemian members moved to the suburbs or died, although some older people remain.

"The neighborhood changed, so the church saw it had to reach out to the African-Americans who were here," said the pastor, the Rev. Michael Sergi. "So it became not just a Bohemian church. It became a Bohemian-African-American church."

Said Thames, who was one of the first African-American parishioners, "When I got here it was almost all Bohemian."

"It's gone through quite a transformation," she said, one that has not been without difficulty. "It's been quite an experience, but I see us as coming through this very slowly in a better frame of mind with each other."

Twice in the past 13 years, St. Wenceslaus was threatened with closing but survived by being twinned with other parishes. After surviving those ordeals, the building was heavily damaged by an electrical fire on Easter morning five years ago. "This we can fix," Sergi said at the time.

The parishioners did.

Easter is when members of St. Wenceslaus most visibly reach out to the neighborhood. They gathered on the night of Holy Thursday, when Sergi called 12 parishioners forward and, in imitation of Jesus' actions as described in the Gospel of St. John, washed their feet. Those 12 then washed the feet of other members of the congregation, a symbol of the service to which they are committed.

Stations of the Cross

On Good Friday, they took to the streets to perform one of the most traditional Catholic rituals, the Stations of the Cross, a re-enactment of Jesus' journey along the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion. With one parishioner carrying a wooden cross, they walked the streets around the parish, scattering drug dealers and passing out religious tracts to residents sitting on the stoops of their rowhouses.

One of the first stations, which recalls Jesus' act in accepting his cross from his Roman executioners, was a stop in front of a boarded rowhouse, its walls covered with graffiti, diagonally across from the church.

"We stop here to pray at a place that is known for drug dealing, where crime is committed," intoned Bailey, the assistant pastor. "We ask God to make this a holy place, a place where God is loved."

Sergi said the parishioners of St. Wenceslaus have been doing the outdoor Stations of the Cross for six years. The stations are locations in the neighborhood where people have been shot or other crimes have been committed.

"Years ago, whatever went on inside the church was what the church was. The outdoor stations were an opportunity for us to take the church to the streets and say the church is out here, too," Sergi said.

"Some folks will run from us when they see the cross coming. But we've had drug dealers say, `Can I carry the cross?' " he said. "They'll stop at a place where drug dealing is done, where maybe somebody got shot."

He added: "It's important for us to be present to the community. The people always know we're here."

Tenebrae service

On Good Friday night, the parishioners gathered for a more traditional Tenebrae service, a dramatic ritual in which Psalms and Bible readings were chanted as the congregation walked in procession around the church with a statue of Jesus. The candles providing the only light in the church were extinguished before the statue was placed in a replica of a tomb.

As the parishioners of St. Wenceslaus move from the sorrow of Good Friday to the joy of Easter, they say, they emerge with a sense of hope that sustains them for the coming year.

"The meaning of Easter for me is to celebrate that Jesus died for me on the cross and rose from the dead," said Marcella Obot, 33, who has been coming to the church since her parents first brought her at age 6. "It gets me moving every day I wake up to know that God loves me."

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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