St. Ignatius shines again in all its glory

Restoration: After making a commitment to stay in Baltimore, a downtown Roman Catholic church has renovated its building.

December 11, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. William J. Watters' appointment as pastor of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in 1991 came with a clear set of marching orders: determine whether the ailing downtown parish could be revived or shut it down.

Tomorrow, the parishioners of St. Ignatius, Baltimore's Jesuit parish, will mark a milestone in the church's rebirth, as they celebrate a $1.7 million renovation that has restored the 143-year-old church's original grace and elegance.

Having redefined its mission to the city and created ministries to address that mission, the church has made a statement that St. Ignatius' parishioners are not about to abandon the church or Baltimore.

"This renovation is another statement," Watters said. "We're going to stay. We're not moving."

In its heyday before World War II, the Jesuit church on Calvert Street was a bustling center of religious devotion, with the constant activity of Masses, confessions and novenas from dawn until late at night. But many Catholics left the city for the suburbs after World War II, and the parish slowly shrank -- until there were only 160 families where there was room for about 800 people.

During the past eight years, St. Ignatius' members have refashioned their mission and ministries and have begun drawing suburban Catholics into the city for Sunday Mass, more than doubling the congregation to more than 300 families.

Watters recalls that during his installation as pastor, he challenged the parish, which began with the founding of a chapel for Loyola College in 1856, to grow or die. "We're either going to die here and close up or we're going to live here and be imaginative and creative," he told them. "I said if we're going to be here, we've got to be here in a vital way. Otherwise, why be here?"

The parish expanded its social ministries, establishing an overnight shelter for homeless men. The Sunday liturgies improved, with an emphasis on good music and solid preaching. It started a middle school for inner-city boys, which has an enrollment of 66 pupils. And it began to offer programs on adult spirituality, particularly emphasizing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits.

The renovation project began 33 months ago with exterior work, including repointing masonry, and repairs to the trim and roof. The church hired the Baltimore architectural firm of Murphy & Dittenhafer and work began on the interior six months ago. During the renovations, the congregation gathered for services next door at Center Stage, in the building that once housed Loyola College and High School.

Plaster repainted

The heart of the renovation involved restoring a painting on the plaster ceiling, removing old varnish to reveal the vivid colors underneath. "You see the blue sky. That was a pale green color before they took the old varnish off," said Michael V. Murphy, the architect who supervised the renovation.

The ornate ornamental plaster work that was originally created by artisans brought to Baltimore from Italy was repainted in several subtle shades. "It was all one color when I came here," Watters said, thanks to a 1968 paint job that left all the ornamentation covered with a cream hue. Removing the paint revealed the original colorful subtleties. "It is now 16 different colors. We were eager to bring out the embellishment and the detail, which was quite hidden."

Hanging lamps were removed, and the lighting was improved. A new hardwood floor was installed. The sanctuary, where the priest celebrates the Mass, accompanied by lectors, altar servers and lay Eucharistic ministers, was extended.

Adapting to liturgy

"We created more space for the expanded number of people taking part in services these days," Murphy said. "When the church was built, there was a priest and a couple of altar boys, and they handled the whole Mass. It's really adapting to changes in the liturgy."

Some of the most important renovations can't be seen, like the new heating and air conditioning system. And more importantly, they can't be heard.

"The heating and air conditioning system was so loud they actually had to turn it off when someone wanted to give a talk so people could hear," Murphy said.

The 1860 W. B. D. Simmons and Co. organ, with its more than 1,900 pipes of wood and metal, is also being restored.

Architectural legacy

"We're restoring everything back to as close to original condition as we possibly can," said Mark Steiner, president of the Cumberland-based Steiner-Murphy Organ Co. "When it's done, it should sound just like it did in the 1860s."

For the architect, who also designed the restoration of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church downtown, the St. Ignatius project was an opportunity to preserve a bit of Baltimore's architectural history.

"They're not building places like this in Columbia or Harford County," Murphy said. "I think these churches in downtown Baltimore are an architectural legacy."

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