Bethlehem Steel has been sold, most of its workers have retired or moved away, and the church that served many area steelworkers for 47 years - Christ the King Roman Catholic Church - celebrated its final Mass yesterday morning.
Some say it is fitting that the church in the Turners Station area of Dundalk offered its last service Labor Day weekend, a time the nation honors workingmen and women.
"It's almost ironical it closes on Labor Day weekend," said Bishop William Newman, who spoke tearful parting words as he looked across pews crowded with weeping parishioners.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore decided to close the parish because of a dwindling number of priests in the church, and fewer worshippers at Christ the King. Three other Catholic churches are within a two-mile radius of Turners Station, a once-prosperous community of steelworkers that lost its economic base.
The Josephite Priests and Brothers opened the church in 1956, attracting about 320 families in southeast Baltimore County. Today, it has about 100 families, and usually no more than 40 people at any one service.
The Rev. Richard P. Wojciechowski celebrated his 40th year in the priesthood yesterday, and decided to wear white to commemorate his anniversary and the church's closing.
He opened his sermon with bittersweet words as he surveyed the room packed with hundreds of expectant eyes.
"If I had this every Sunday it wouldn't be closing," said Wojciechowski, who has been pastor at Christ the King for 25 years and is in ailing health. "But I welcome you."
The priest reassured his parishioners that he would be available to them, and that they would be welcome at neighboring parishes. "The other churches can easily take care of the 100 families here," he said.
Wojciechowski then preached about the importance of taking small children to Mass to expose them to religion, saying, "It is they who are the beginning and the establishment of our faith."
Evelyn Germani, 42, who has attended services at Christ the King for about 15 years, dabbed at her eyes throughout the service. "It was like a little family here, a small, close-knit parish," Germani said. "Everyone pitched in."
She said she enjoyed the parish because of its traditional values, describing it as "the way the Catholic Church used to be."
When Mass was over, a wave of nostalgic people went to the altar to get snapshots of themselves and family members in front of the church's defining symbol - a larger-than-life-size image of Jesus Christ carved out of wood.
Sally Testani, 60, took a picture with friends, then spoke about her parents, John and Catherine Stavisky, who were founding members of the parish. In the 1980s, the Staviskys bought a floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window for the church.
"They were very devoted," Testani said. "They were in the choir. My dad was the organist. They took care of bingo, dinners. They had their 50th wedding anniversary here."
Her son Richard Gardener of Parkville said the church has passed its prime.
"It was an aging parish," said Gardener, 39. "There are not a lot of younger people moving into the neighborhood."
Newman said the church has "lost its purpose."
"This is a tough thing to do, close the parish," Newman said after the service. "Down here, faith is so much a part of people's lives. You don't want to shake that."