Fells Point women stand by their vision

This Just In...

March 02, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

A YOUNG URBAN professional hustling home with groceries stopped Melvin DeMartin on Ash Wednesday night in Fells Point and asked why he and other parishioners of old Saint Stan's were all looking up at the steeple. Melvin told him, and the yuppie kept right on moving down Ann Street, with only a quick half-glance at the deserted church.

Yes, it's one of those stories - women claim to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary on the steeple of a Roman Catholic church - and most of the rational world will keep right on moving. Here we are, after all, in the old haunt of John Waters, whose 1998 film "Pecker" featured the flaky grandmother who went around her Baltimore neighborhood with a talking statue of the BVM, conversing with it like Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy. This former altar boy laughed heartily, and only a little guiltily.

But that was a movie; Laura Ginski's story is real life, and I don't laugh at a 64-year-old woman's willingness to stand on her faith, at the corner of Ann and Aliceanna, and tell me, "I seen the Blessed Mother four times."

Besides, she might whack me if I get smart.

Before we go into all the thorny details of her "vision," it's important to know that Laura Ginski's church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, is closed. For the first time in the church's 120-year history, there was no priest there to impose ashes for the start of Lent. A year ago this month, the Archdiocese of Baltimore made the decision to lock the doors, citing dwindling attendance.

Ginski was one of four parishioners who appealed personally to Cardinal Keeler to keep Saint Stan's open. "He was nice, but it was like talking to a wall," she said. A lot of elderly parishioners, and probably many of the middle-aged ones with kids, believe the old church's location, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, makes it attractive real estate, and they suspect that one day it will be sold to a developer.

The last Mass was in May, and several parishioners prayed to the Virgin Mary for a miracle that would save the church. It was a sad day for Fells Point and Baltimore when, instead of investing in Saint Stan's revival and breeding hope for a better day, the archdiocese balanced its suburban obligations off the back of another historic city parish.

But Ginski keeps the faith. She believes the doors will reopen and that she, the other parishioners, their children and their grandchildren will be able to attend Sunday Mass in Saint Stan's.

She serves on a committee that wants to preserve the church as a museum or a place for vespers, anything to keep it from being turned into condominiums. She helps raise money at Monday noontime bingo at Lemko House, where a lot of Saint Stan's elderly parishioners live.

At about 8 of a night two weeks ago, Ginski was walking home to her rowhouse on South Wolfe Street. She looked up and saw, against the illuminated cross on the side of the steeple of Saint Stan's, the Virgin Mary in white and blue robes, as she has appeared in paintings and in statuary for centuries.

I asked how Ginski knew it was the mother of Jesus.

"It looked like her, and the blue and white robes," she said.

Could it have been an angel?"

"An angel wouldn't wear blue and white."

Who knew angels had a dress code?

Ginski told her daughter, Dot Hayes, and her daughter thought she was crazy, just trying to get some attention. "I think my mother's out of her mind," she told a friend from Lancaster Street, Mary Slowikowski.

Then something happened: Mary Slowikowski went out at about 8 of a night, and she saw the Virgin Mary against the cross against the steeple of Saint Stan's - same iconic face, same blue and white robes.

Then Pam Zientak, who at age 33 has lived in Fells Point all her life, came home from shopping one night, and she also saw the image of Mary against the cross. "Her hands were outstretched, her eyes were closed, and she had a solemn face," Zientak says.

This was getting serious. Ginski asked her daughter to get a camera. The daughter was skeptical. She didn't exactly splurge. "I picked up a Kodak throwaway at the CVS," she says.

Ginski went into Ann Street with it. "My hands were shaking," she says. A man came out of a nearby restaurant. Ginski asked if he'd take a picture of the steeple for her. She doesn't know the man's name. But she saw him aim the camera at the steeple and snap.

Her daughter took the camera for processing. "Wal-Mart," she says. "One-hour service; they couldn't fool with it." Out came several bad exposures and one extremely weird snapshot: no steeple, just a grainy, ghostly close-up of a round-faced young woman with closed eyes and a trace of hair on her forehead.

"Bangs," Ginski says. "I can't believe the Blessed Mother has bangs."

I looked at this photo the other night, as a group of Saint Stan's parishioners - Melvin DeMartin, Mary Slowikowski, Pam Zientak, Dot Hayes - stepped into Ann Street. Ginski asked what I thought of it.

I thought it looked as though someone had held a cheap camera near the face of a teen-age girl with bangs and snapped a picture at night, and the flash had caused the girl to blink.

How this image got on the roll of film in the disposable camera from CVS, I cannot say.

How a man could take a picture of a church steeple from 50 yards away and end up with a close-up of a girl, I cannot say.

"How could a teen-age girl get up on the steeple?" Ginski asked me.

Uh. I don't know that, either.

All I know is that the photograph doesn't matter as much as what seems to be in Laura Ginski's heart.

She believes. She has faith. When it's Ash Wednesday and your old church is deserted, and you're standing on a dark sidewalk in the city of Baltimore, faith matters.

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