Final gathering at two chapels

Closings: Parishioners of St. Gerard's and Holy Redeemer celebrated their last Masses at the chapels, which no longer justified the assignment of priests, the archdiocese said.

January 28, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

To the end, the parishioners of St. Gerard's Chapel in O'Donnell Heights prayed that something would keep their church from closing. St. Gerard Majella was, after all, known for his miracles.

But none came yesterday, as the chapel that has stood at Charlotte and Cardiff avenues for 47 years held its final Mass.

Vince Kelly, organist at the chapel for the past 32 years, found himself locking the front doors for the last time, full of hurt. David Jeffreys, who helped install the pews, anticipated their dismantling.

FOR THE RECORD - Parishioners at St. Gerard's Chapel in O'Donnell Heights counted 202 people at the chapel's final Mass on Sunday. An article in Monday's Maryland section reported an incorrect number. The Sun regrets the error.

A short distance away, at Holy Redeemer Chapel in Greektown, 9-year-old altar server Kyle Poole found himself next to mothers and babies in the crying room, trying to come to terms with the loss of his church.

Evelyn Jakowski, volunteer administrative assistant at the chapel, wore a corsage of calla lilies and a bright smile that dissolved when she was asked how she felt.

"Just lost," she replied.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced last month that it would close the two chapels, as they have other Catholic institutions no longer deemed viable.

The once-thriving chapels, founded in the 1940s as an outreach of Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Highlandtown, no longer justified the assignment of priests that are in short supply, the archdiocese concluded.

Raymond P. Kempisty, spokesman for Cardinal William H. Keeler, said yesterday that no decisions had been made about what will happen to the buildings.

But both chapels came alive for their last Mass, surpassing their usual attendance of about 100 each, as congregants from near and far came to participate in the services. St. Gerard's attracted about 140 worshippers; Holy Redeemer counted 210.

For many parishioners, the occasion was a funeral for a dear friend. They wept through the homilies, through the hymns, through the hugs of fellow worshippers they were not certain of seeing again.

There were little girls in velvet dresses, adults who had come back to the chapels after falling away and senior citizens wondering how they would get to another church when they haven't driven for years.

`All I had left'

Jeffreys, 79, who came to O'Donnell Heights and to St. Gerard's as a young steelworker, has seen his three children grow up and move away from the neighborhood. His wife died in 1993.

"All I had left was St. Gerard's, and now they're snatching that from me," he said.

Like other parishioners, Jeffreys was upset with the archdiocese for refusing to allow the congregation to hire a priest to say Mass. For years, parishioners have taken responsibility for almost every other function, including maintaining the building and ministering to the sick.

By some accounts, a third of St. Gerard's remaining parishioners had been members of the congregation since its beginning, 50 years ago in a neighborhood recreation center.

Standing room only

After the chapel opened in 1955, Mass often was standing room only - so crowded that the congregation installed wood paneling along the walls to make it easier to clean the handprints of people who worshipped from the aisles, said David Denaro, an original member.

"This always was a church," said Denaro, 73. "We never considered it a chapel. We stayed and stayed until people died and moved away."

The Rev. Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R, a member of the Redemptorist order that has staffed the chapels since their founding, urged the mourners before him to look past their pain to the real meaning of the faith that brought them together.

He reminded them of the obstacles St. Gerard overcame. When his mother locked him in his room to keep him from becoming a missionary, the future saint climbed out the window.

"It's not a building," Bailey said. "It's a community of faith. ... It's a call to carry what we have received in this place, outside these walls, outside this neighborhood and this area."

`A home'

At Holy Redeemer at Oldham Street and Fait Avenue, the Rev. Thomas Loftus, C.Ss.R., sounded a similar theme.

"Today, we thank God for all the grand and glorious memories we have of this place," he said.

"We share this great faith, we share this great commitment, wherever we go."

But to longtime parishioners such as Jakowski, Holy Redeemer was special. "It takes a heap of living to make a house a home," she said. "We made it a home."

Said Kyle, the altar boy: "It's like the heart of the community, and they're taking the heart of the community away. I just feel so upset. Once we leave, we close the doors and we can't come back in."

Kyle, wearing an altar robe of white and red, stopped crying in time for the procession and the opening hymn, "Here I Am Lord."

But when the boy stood before the congregation at the priest's left side, in front of a bouquet of white roses that formed a heart, he looked at all the families he had worshipped with every Sunday.

He couldn't help it. Though he tried to squint and blink them away, the tears had come again.

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