Blessing the tools of the trades

Ceremony: On a day more renowned for cookouts, an East Baltimore church takes time to remember those who labor.

September 05, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

It looked like a small yard sale displayed shrine-like before the altar at St. Anthony of Padua/Most Precious Blood church in East Baltimore.

A clarinet rested on a pedestal. Monkey wrenches, hammers and rasps bloomed from a toolbox like a flower arrangement. A firefighter's coat dangled from a coat rack, the floppy rubber boots beneath it. A funky microscope sat atop an old school desk near an electric-blue upholstered massage chair and an ancient Radio Shack computer.

Then, halfway through yesterday morning's Mass, Deacon Joe Krysiak explained the incongruous display to his sparse congregation and asked members to "honor and remember the people who use these things."

"It's not just another Monday," Krysiak said, and then he joined the Rev. Lou Martin in sprinkling holy water on the eclectic collection of tools.

Decades ago, such Labor Day rituals were common in the churches of this former blue-collar city.

A rite called the Blessing of the Tools was once an annual occasion for workers to bring their tools to church, where a priest would bless them and sprinkle them with holy water. The cardinal of the Roman Catholic church used to bless tools each Labor Day at the downtown cathedral.

But the factories shut down, the workers' tools rusted or got sold in yard sales, and the blessing of the tools, for the most part, was forgotten.

Similarly, the first Monday of September - which was named a national holiday in 1894 - has become more a commemoration of the end of summer, the start of a new school year, the start of football season, a day for barbecues and beers. It is rarely a day to reflect on our toils and trades.

This year, Krysiak decided to put the labor back in Labor Day.

"I wanted to make people aware of why they're off today," he said last week, as he prepared for yesterday's Mass.

"But it's not like it was in the old days, when people made their living with their tools."

Krysiak is a child of East Baltimore. Before retiring and becoming a deacon, he had worked 30 years as an accountant at Bethlehem Steel, and many of his neighbors and friends worked at such east-side institutions of labor as Beth Steel, the Glenn L. Martin plant, C&P Telephone, Western Electric and Seagram's.

When Krysiak mentioned some of the factories of his youth during yesterday's Mass, speaking to a congregation that had once worked at such places, it sounded as if he were listing the names of saints.

"Many of us who grew up here in East Baltimore can remember these places," he said.

"But today, it's a different kind of world."

As he said that, Krysiak waved his hand toward the computer set on a table, which was the most prominent item in the display of tools. The old Radio Shack Tandy 1000 was symbolic of how technology has become the primary tool of the working world.

Martin, the pastor, then dunked a silver baton into a ewer of holy water and flicked it over the computer and the pick axes and the vacuum cleaner and the ladder, sending droplets over the tools as he prayed that the workers who use such tools "provide a decent life for themselves and their families."

As the hourlong ceremony drew to an end, the organist struck up the first chords of the closing hymn.

"This one's not in the song book," he said. "So you'll have to do it from memory."

And the three score congregants of St. Anthony's joined to sing "God Bless America."

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