Part of Fells Point's soul dies as Polish church closes

March 26, 2000|By Michael Olesker

SOMETIMES YOU can gain the world but lose your soul. Fells Point opens its arms to young suburbanites rediscovering the city but closes the doors of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church. In the new millennium, real estate values are more bullish than God's.

The young suburbanites, grown bored with their bland, air-conditioned malls, are buying Fells Point properties right and left. They've discovered the old neighborhood's markets and shops and taverns, and rowhouses a stone's throw from the waterfront, and the area's gritty cobblestone authenticity.

But what's more authentic than old St. Stanislaus Church, whose doors opened in the aftermath of the Civil War and will close after Mass on Easter Sunday, with no one anticipating any grand religious resurrection.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore blames it strictly on changing demographics. So many of the old Polish families who put down roots in Fells Point long ago, who worked the Broadway Market stalls for so many years and called across the crowded aisles in their Eastern European accents and sent their children to school at St. Stan's -- by the thousands, they moved out to suburbia in the last half of the 1900s.

And, between the time of their leaving, and the new generation's rediscovery of the neighborhood, not enough people have supported St. Stanislaus. On average, only a few hundred show up for Sunday services. The church school, where Felician nuns once educated as many as a thousand students each year, closed 20 years ago.

And the Order of Conventual Franciscans Minor, which owns the church buildings and land, say the decision to leave is irrevocable.

In last week's East Baltimore Guide, editor Jacqueline Watts reported, "In a community where tiny plots of land bring $250,000 or more the Franciscans have been offered as much as $15 million for the property" -- though Father Robert Twele, treasurer and secretary of the Franciscans, says the order has not entertained any offers to buy the land.

"What's happening is just a pity," Denise Whitman was saying last week. She is vice president of the Fells Point Business Association and serves on the board of directors of its Preservation Society.

"St. Stan's," she said, "is one of the cornerstones of this neighborhood, as a religious place and as a landmark. This is devastating."

Whitman works out of the Fells Point Visitor's Center, on South Ann Street a block below the St. Stanislaus complex. The Preservation Society was in the nearby Robert Long House Museum until a fire a few months ago. The house was built in 1765. The fire was caused by a faulty wire -- attached to a computer.

It seems almost a metaphor for a community slightly wary of the modern. While most understand that things must change, they also know that Fells Point's past is important because such things help give the city its idiosyncratic flavor. It's the anti-cookie cutter neighborhood.

Whitman lives in a neighborhood rowhouse that was built in 1832. She remembers, not so long ago, "when I used to go to the [Broadway] markets and hear people talking in Polish. This has always been a neighborhood of immigrants. You had the Poles, the Germans, the Irish. You still have some of them, plus the old Lithuanians and Ukrainians. And now there's a lot of Latinos in upper Fells Point.

"But a lot of the old European ethnics have moved out lately. They've sold out because their property values have gotten so high. Now it's becoming more a neighborhood of young professionals. That's nice, sure. And there's money around, and a lot of new businesses and tourists.

"But the neighborhood's getting more of a homogenized feel. We used to have a working waterfront. Now, everybody's looking to `develop' it."

Many of Fells Point's old buildings are protected by municipal law. We are not a city of cretins who casually kiss off our own history. Ironically, though, St. Stanislaus is not protected. It is what residents forlornly call "the hole in the doughnut" -- a three-block exception to a 1972 Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan limiting the height and density of buildings in the neighborhood.

In other words, a big-money developer could construct to his heart's content on the property, without concern for its effect on those nearby.

From the front steps of St. Stanislaus, visitors can gaze south to the waterfront. Tugboats are bobbing in the water -- not far from commercial water taxis shuttling tourists. Fortunately, nobody can take the water away.

But it's a reminder that so much in Fells Point has vanished, or is about to vanish: vulnerable old buildings, waterfront characters, the sound of so many foreign accents filling the air -- and maybe, if everybody isn't real careful, the neighborhood's very soul.

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