Carmen J. Portera, 91, railroad worker who volunteered at St. Jude Shrine

May 08, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Carmen J. Portera, a former boxer and railroad worker who devoted more than a half-century to the Roman Catholic Church's patron saint of hopeless causes, died of lung cancer Friday at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 91.

Mr. Portera was head usher and a full-time volunteer at the St. Jude Shrine of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church at Paca and Saratoga streets.

"He was such a part of the church that you'd almost feel like the doors wouldn't be open unless he opened them," said John Steadman, a sports columnist for The Sun who volunteered at the shrine.

FOR THE RECORD - Carmen J. Portera: In an obituary for Carmen J. Portera in the May 8 editions of The Sun, the date of a fire at Charles Towers Apartments, where he lived, was incorrect.
The fire from which Mr. Portera escaped occurred Feb. 5, 1999.

"Carmen would say to me, `John, you're my best man, I want you to work the center aisle," said Mr. Steadman. "And I'd joke with him: `Gee, Carmen, I've had a better offer from St. Alphonsus. I might take that.' "

Born in Grenada, Miss., Mr. Portera spent his first 10 years in Alabama. He moved with his family to Baltimore when he was age 12. He started boxing at age 17, and won his first 12 bouts. After losing a fight, an older brother persuaded him to give up the sport.

In 1935, Mr. Portera married Mary Cannatella. The couple had four children. A native of the Lexington Market area, Mrs. Portera has volunteered at the St. Jude Shrine since grade school and introduced her husband to the work.

During World War II, Mr. Portera worked at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant. He later loaded freight for more than 20 years for Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Otis Milby, a longtime friend, said that Mr. Portera was almost always at the St. Jude Shrine, greeting people, working for the priests, helping with chores, sorting mail and performing other tasks.

"Carmen was part of the institution at St. Jude's -- a part of the building, really," said Mr. Milby, 72, a retired teacher. "He had a heart of gold. He sometimes came across as gruff. But once you get through the gruffness, there was nobody like him. He was very generous."

Mr. Portera lived with his wife of 65 years in the Charles Towers apartments on North Charles Street. Of their work at the shrine, Mrs. Portera said: "You become involved and it becomes part of your life. I sleep at home, but that is all I do there. The shrine is my second home."

When a fire broke out at Charles Towers in 1997, the couple prayed to St. Jude as they rode the elevator down from the 10th floor.

"I was scared to death, but we prayed to St. Jude and everything turned out fine," Mrs. Portera said.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9: 30 a.m. tomorrow at the St. Jude Shrine, 308 N. Paca St.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Portera is survived by a son, H. Joseph Portera of Parkville; three daughters, Mary Gerk of Timonium, Loretta Garfinkle of western Baltimore County and Dorothea Portera of Macungie, Pa.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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