From Pirogi To Lattes

St. Casimir's, like its Canton neighborhood, is moving from a Polish past to a yuppie future.

October 27, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The twin spires of St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church have stood like sentinels in the heart of Canton for 75 years, signposts for the neighborhood, markers for sailors plying the harbor and a comfort for the faithful, pointing ever upward toward the heavens.

The parish, a century old next year, is in the midst of the most profound change in its history. So too the neighborhood. From its beginnings as an urban, ethnic church serving Polish immigrants, St. Casimir now finds itself ministering to young, upscale professionals while still attending to the needs of its aging, more traditional parishioners.

The job of guiding this transition has fallen to the Rev. Ross M. Syracuse, the youthful pastor who arrived at St. Casimir's four years ago when the church attendance was in a nose dive and the Canton resurgence was taking off.

He's perhaps the ideal priest for the job. Like lots of the "new people" moving into Canton, he's a dedicated runner, doing six miles around the neighborhood nearly every day. He's completed 73 marathons, including the city's race last Sunday, where he offered the invocation prayer, then took off with the throng and finished with a time of 3:43:55. He works out at a local health club. He's a vegetarian. And he flies a Cessna 152 for recreation.

Yet he's a deeply spiritual priest with a warm respect for tradition. He pads through Canton in the dark robe, bound by a knotted white cord, and the open sandals of the Franciscan order. He conducts a healing service Thursday evening at the church, and he's just back from a religious retreat.

"Father Ross," says Bernadette Vece, St. Casimir's business manager, "he's around the clock almost."

She ticks off four Masses on the weekend, daily morning Masses Monday to Friday, funerals, weddings, pre-nuptial classes. Father Ross, the only priest assigned to the parish, has just added a third Mass on Sunday at 5 p.m. to attract the new people, who may find even a noon Mass too early after partying late Saturday night.

"We have a lot of good ministers, people who help with the Masses and the different services we have, our ushers and eucharistic ministers, our lecteurs," Vece says.

And yet, Father Ross still has plenty to do. When he arrived at St. Casimir's, Mass attendance had been dropping by almost 15 per cent a year for 10 years. Younger people were moving away; older parishioners were dying off.

"We had between 40 and 60 funerals a year," Father Ross says. "And although we still have the same amount of funerals, we are increasing in our Mass attendance."

Coming down the aisle after the popular 10 o'clock Mass recently are two of those young professionals who have found a new spiritual home in St. Casimir's, Amy Williams, 28, and Christopher Hickey, 29. He's a stockbroker and she's a social worker. They're planning a June wedding at the church with Father Ross.

"He has a nice way about him," Chris says.

"He does a good job," Amy says. "He includes everyone, makes everybody feel comfortable."

Amy, who came here from Akron, Ohio, to go to grad school at the University of Maryland, has a place on Milton Avenue, a half-dozen blocks from the church. Chris, originally from New York , lived in Fells Point five years before he was recently transferred to Wilmington, Del. They both think the new 5 o'clock Mass on Sunday will bring younger people back to the church.

"It's part of the whole change in the community," Chris says. "That Mass will kind of round out the weekend. It's a very good idea."

Father Ross thinks that St. Casimir's offers newcomers something they might find lacking in their lives.

"Many," he says, "don't come from backgrounds where they have had a lot of tradition in their families, or even in their belonging to the church.

"And our St. Casimir's is kind of steeped in ... a lot of tradition, culture and spirituality. You look around the church with all the paintings and statues and you can't help but have an experience of the tradition and of the past."

The interior

The spacious church, with its bell towers reaching skyward 110 feet, culminates in an altar that replicates flawlessly Donatello's altar at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. The centerpiece is a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary rising from a throne with the infant Jesus in her arms. She is flanked by St. Anthony and St. Francis, patrons of the Franciscan Order, which has administered the church since 1905. Overhead rises an extraordinary reproduction of Donatello's Crucifix.

The nave is a grand space, airy and filled with light colored by more than a dozen stained glass windows. Murals overhead depict scenes from the church in Poland and in America, including a tableau with Baltimore's Mother Seton, the first American-born saint.

"This was once a Polish church," says Betty Piskor, a St. Casimir's parishioner for 50 years and a tour guide who loves the church. And it's not without significance that she uses the past tense. "As you can see from the names [under the stained glass windows]."

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