Church attributes 150 years of growth to its inclusiveness

Hundreds celebrate Catholic parish's long history in city

November 08, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

As it celebrated its 150th anniversary yesterday, St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Govans was packed with an ethnic mix of parishioners far more diverse than the Irish flock it first served.

The church at York and Tunbridge roads in North Baltimore, which has survived by keeping its doors open to Baltimore's changing ethnic spectrum, celebrated the occasion with a Mass and parish reception.

"There's a lot of energy here," said Ronald T. McDade, a hospital administrator and president of St. Mary's parish council who lives on Kenleigh Road. "It's a diverse urban church that brings people together through their ethnicities."

"Our openness and diversity is what has made us survive," said the Rev. P. Edward Kenney, pastor of St. Mary's. "We try to improve the life of this community."

He listed several projects that the church has helped to bring to Govans -- homes for the mentally challenged, the homeless and senior citizens.

Kenney said the church is taking a role in the proposed Stadium Place, a residence for senior citizens on the site of Memorial Stadium on East 33rd Street -- about a mile south of St. Mary's.

One Irish orphanage

"This is a tradition that began with an Irish orphanage," Kenney said.

St. Mary's started as an orphanage, built in the late 1840s by the Rev. James Dolan, a priest from Fells Point, at the site where Loyola College's new athletic center at North Charles Street and Wyndhurst Avenue stands. Dolan wanted a healthy and wholesome site for the young lads, far from crowded streets and wharves, and the famine and starvation of Ireland.

By 1849, a chapel followed -- and inevitably a cemetery -- as well as a schoolhouse on today's Homeland Avenue, due east of the grounds of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Growth continues

So successful was St. Mary's -- called the mother church of North Baltimore -- that it established daughter parishes in Texas-Cockeysville, Towson, Hampden and Mount Washington. It also had temporary chapels for Irish workers building the Loch Raven water supply system.

St. Mary's, with its Gothic spire and the feel of a country church, stayed on Homeland Avenue until 1942, when it moved to its present set of buildings on York Road.

Sisters honored

Before yesterday's 2 p.m. Mass began, 19 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame gathered in the parish rectory. They represented the 155 members of the religious order of women who have staffed St. Mary's parochial school for 125 years.

"I grew up right over there," said Sister Helen Fish, as she gestured out a window toward her old family home on Govans' Markland Avenue.

Then someone called out "Show time" and the nuns filed out of the room and walked down the church's center aisle to their seats in the pews, accompanied by a pipe organ, a full choir and handbell ringers.

As the November sunlight streamed through the cobalt blue stained-glass windows of SS. Peter and Patrick, the congregation of Irish-, African- and Hispanic-Americans sang hymns and anthems.

"Yours is a great history in faith," Cardinal William H. Keeler, attired in a black cassock and bright red sash and cap, told about 700 people who attended the celebration. "As you recall the past, celebrate the future."

Gallery records history

After Mass, the celebrants filed past an informal gallery of historic photos and artifacts that had been set up at the back of the church.

The display included a photograph of a former pastor, the Rev. Dwight Edward Lyman, who served from 1860 to 1893.

He was an Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism and was known as the "good dean of Govanstown." Lyman Avenue, a street bordering the church school, is named in his honor.

The celebrants admired altar vessels in a glass case, including a chalice made by the fabled Baltimore silversmithing firm of Schofield & Co.

Also on display were 1950s photos of St. Mary's athletic teams -- some of the best known seventh- and eighth-grade basketball players in the parochial league -- and a parish drum and bugle corps that once marched through Govans.

Included was a reminder of an earlier day of parish finances. The browning pages of an 1879 pew rent book listed Maggie Flaherty, John Lacey, Stephen Sinnott, James Mulligan and Bridget Kane as having paid their $2 quarterly fee for the use of church pews.

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