Faltering roof shuts 130-year-old church

South Baltimore structure is still harbor landmark, but services moved

July 16, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

In 1903, a disastrous tornado swept through Baltimore, destroying 250 buildings and toppling half the steeple of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church, but the sanctuary remained open for Sunday services.

Until this month.

The South Baltimore landmark closed July 2 for what is believed to be the first time in its 130-year history after the roof slid off its foundation, opening a gaping hole and forcing the evacuation of six nuns.

The church, built in 1869, serves more than 400 families who are now worshiping at nearby Holy Cross Church on West Street.

Church officials said the building will not reopen before Labor Day.

Nestled among South Baltimore rowhouses in the 1400 block of Riverside Ave., the church steeple is one of the highest points between the Outer and Inner harbors. The blue light atop the structure -- which sailors have used since the late 1800s to guide them up the Patapsco and into port -- was not affected and still blinks at night.

But the faltering slate roof, covered by a blue tarp, was an unpleasant welcome for The Rev. Thomas R. Malia who transferred to the church from Bel Air one day before the hole was discovered.

"I walked into this, the roof decided to move the day I came aboard," Malia said. "I don't know why it happened, but good always comes out of bad situations."

Yesterday, church officials could not determine when the roof was last repaired, but estimated it could have been decades.

Raymond Kempisty, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, expressed relief that no one was inside when the roof shifted. The problem was spotted by an engineer who was attending a party on one of the neighborhood's rowhouse roof decks, Kempisty said.

"If it had not been noticed, it could have been a dangerous situation," Kempisty said, noting Saturday services were scheduled for the next day. The hole is not visible from inside the building.

After noticing the hole, the party-goers contacted church officials, who called in city firefighters. They used a 65-foot ladder to examine the damage. Firefighters found a 4-foot-wide triangular hole that was apparently caused by shifts in the wood support beams.

Firefighters and church officials ordered the church closed and removed six nuns who live in an adjoining building. The nuns relocated temporarily to a Philadelphia villa.

The shifting was stabilized last week, and the nuns returned Monday.

Church officials are seeking contractors' bids to repair the roof, but have not determined project costs.

Until repairs are complete, the St. Mary, Star of the Sea congregation will hold services at Holy Cross, five blocks away, before Holy Cross' regular services. Yesterday, several church members said the closure was an inconvenience, but something the congregation could endure.

"We love the building, but after all, the people are the Church," said Sister Ethel Ritz.

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