For a small country church, St. Paul's in historic Ellicott City has had its share of famous visitors - including Babe Ruth and Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore. Perched atop a steep hill overlooking the city, St. Paul's - founded in 1835 - can also boast of being the oldest Roman Catholic church in Howard County. While many churches have embraced modernity, history plays an important role at St. Paul's.
Prominently displayed with other church artifacts is the marriage certificate of Babe Ruth, the most famous visitor to the church. On Oct. 17, 1914, at St. Paul's, George Herman "Babe" Ruth married Helen Woodford, a young waitress from Texas he had met in Boston. While rumor has it that the baseball great came out to the "wilds" of Ellicott City because St. Paul's was the only Catholic church in the area willing to marry a divorced man, this was the first marriage for Ruth and Woodford.
According to Paul F. Harris Sr., a Catonsville resident and author of Babe Ruth: The Dark Side, Ruth probably went to St. Paul's to be married because of his ties to West Baltimore.
"He was close to [people from] Mount St. Joe's [in Irvington]. He was totally familiar with the West Baltimore area. He had many friends in Irvington, Catonsville and Ellicott City. He knew everyone in the area." Also, notes Harris, "the old church probably agreed to marry him right away."
In 1999, Cardinal Keeler visited St. Paul's to celebrate the 161st anniversary of the laying of the church's cornerstone in 1838, three years after the church was organized.
"I think people enjoy coming to a historic church that has been renovated and preserved over the years," says the Rev. Thomas J. Dongahy, St. Paul's pastor.
Historical integrity characterizes the church's recently completed, $1.2 million renovation. With dark wooden pews facing a marble altar and walls punctuated with intricate stained-glass windows, the church would be familiar to a time-traveler from the 19th century - and comfortable for anyone searching for tradition.
"I'm happy. I like it," says Peter Neilsen, custodial manager and parishioner at St. Paul's. "This is like an old country church. It has a small, friendly atmosphere."
Old and new blend in the renovation and partial restoration, which addressed practical and aesthetic concerns. The project included a new sound system, new heating and new air conditioning. Whereas coffins for funerals once had to be carried up a long flight of outside stone steps into the church, the new ground-level entrance from the parking lot eliminates the treacherous climb.
Renovations to the parish building that once housed St. Paul's school, begun in 1922 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, offer ample space for CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes, and other religious classes. Intact in the center of the building is the bank vault installed by the former owner, Patapsco National Bank.
"It's sort of an oddity," says Neilsen, "but more trouble to take out than it was worth."
Today, St. Paul's demographics are changing in concert with Howard County's. "When I first came here, it was all elderly. ... It's grown to have a lot of young families," says Cece Zurnic, church secretary for 12 years and a member of St. Paul's. "The blend has been good. It's been, coming from out of town, a great opportunity to meet people."
Says Dongahy, who has been at the church for nine years: "Many folks have been here for many, many years and have parents and grandparents who came here." He, too, notes the shift in the church population.
"The other churches I've been in were well-established in that their neighborhoods were already well-defined. ... Here there are so many new neighborhoods, and a transitional population due to the nature of the work people do. It makes for an interesting mix," Dongahy says.
"Being a one-priest parish is really difficult," notes Zurnic, but "people work very well for you ... people do things to help out." She also points to "the very active youth ministry," run by Becky Clark, and the strong prekindergarten and elementary religious education program coordinated by Sister Dorothy Franz as important to the parish.
"Many may be attracted by the interior and exterior architecture of the church," says Dongahy, "[yet] we don't need the building. We can do evangelism without it. But we are blessed that we have it ... [and] by the Gospel message we teach."
St. Paul Catholic Church
Denomination: : Roman Catholic
Leadership: the Rev. Thomas J. Dongahy, pastor
Size: 900 families
Location: 3755 St. Paul St., Ellicott City
Date founded: 1835
Worship services: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday; 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Weekday Mass is Tuesday through Friday at 8 a.m.
Children's program: 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday, with other classes during the week; call for information.