St. Patrick's church key to festivities

Way Back When

History: The church, the oldest Catholic parish in Baltimore, is a center of celebration every March 17.

March 11, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At 10 o'clock Friday morning, a sea of communicants, many dressed with a hint or more than a hint of green, will enter St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church at Broadway and Bank Street in Upper Fells Point and quickly fill the pews for the church's annual St. Patrick's Day Mass.

"It's usually an overflow crowd," the church's pastor, the Rev. James W. Gilmour, a Redemptorist priest, said yesterday.

"There will be a reception after the Mass, and I understand Irish coffee will be served to those who are interested," he said, laughing.

The landmark church, with its stately clock tower and Gothic arches that soar above parishioners' heads, is as much a part of Baltimore's annual St. Patrick's Day festivities as the shamrock green line and parade down Cathedral Street, Guinness stout, Irish soda bread and boiling pots of aromatic corned beef and cabbage.

Its association with its patron saint dates to 1791, when St. Patrick was reported to have appeared to the parish's founders.

A local newspaper claimed that "the Saint made his personal appearance, and honoured his Sons with his Presence in a Procession through the Town."

"Though slightly incredible, the report made an indelible impression on the resident French, English and Irish colonials, and in 1792 they dedicated their first church to Erin's guardian," said The Evening Sun in 1967.

As the oldest active Catholic parish in Baltimore, founded in 1792, St. Patrick's is now in its fifth place of worship.

Its first communicants were immigrants who disembarked from ships anchored at the foot of Broadway, determined to make a life in the New World.

The church's first Mass was celebrated that year by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, and took place in an unplastered garret of a house at the corner of Bond and Fleet streets.

Parishioners had been seeking the establishment of a church of their own, explaining to Carroll that the two-mile walk from Fells Point to St. Peter's Pro-Cathedral on Saratoga Street was a hardship for the elderly and sick.

The Rev. Antonie Garnier, the parish's first priest, moved his congregation to a new home on Thames Street in 1795. The parish's third place of worship was a small one-story building in Apple Alley, now Bethel Street, where the Rev. John Moranville, St. Patrick's fifth pastor, established the first parochial school in the United States in 1815.

During the first decade of the 19th century, a new building was erected at the corner of Market Street, now Broadway, and Bank Street, and was equipped with the then-latest advances in heating: three potbellied stoves. By mid-century, a clock was installed in the spire and became the official Town Clock of East Baltimore.

In the mid-1890s, the decision was made to replace the crumbling building with the present structure.

In 1897, when James Cardinal Gibbons laid the church's cornerstone, he said, "This sacred spot is especially dear to me. After leaving the seminary, it was here I celebrated my first Mass; it was here I preached my first sermon; it was here I began to break the Bread of Life for the faithful and to exercise the functions of the ministry."

A devastating fire in 1983 -- touched off by a propane torch during a renovation -- destroyed the roof and damaged many of the stained-glass windows of St. Patrick's. In spite of the ferocity of the fire, which took 500,000 gallons of water to extinguish, the heavy wooden beams held firm.

"When they built things then, they built them well," said the Rev. Blair P. Raum, then St. Patrick's pastor.

A $1.5 million renovation was completed in 1986. The Gothic Revival panels, restored in the same Munich stained-glass works where they were handcrafted in the 1890s, were reinstalled in 1993.

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