Baltimore may pick up cost of sending Welch to Vatican

Pilgrimage to be in honor of pope's 25th anniversary

October 08, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

This is an important month for Roman Catholics. In separate ceremonies in Rome, Catholics will observe the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, and the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's papacy.

Many of the nearly 500,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Baltimore will follow the events from afar.

But others will be fortunate enough to attend the events at the Vatican. Among those will be Baltimore City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, whose eight-day pilgrimage to Rome could wind up being covered by city taxpayers.

Welch has paid $2,478.87 for the "holy year pilgrimage" to Rome Oct. 12-20.

The city's Board of Estimates is scheduled today to approve paying for the travel with money from Mayor Martin O'Malley's office. The appropriation to pay for Welch's trip to Rome is expected to pass.

"This pilgrimage of faith is considered a local treasure and resource to the Baltimore community and the City," states a description of the request in the board's agenda.

Welch will be traveling with the 140 Catholics accompanying Cardinal William H. Keeler, who governs the dioceses of Richmond and Arlington, Va., Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, Wilmington, N.C., and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which encompasses the city and nearby counties.

The 78-year-old Welch, a council member for more than 20 years, will deliver to the Vatican a message and a small gift on behalf of the city and the mayor, who is also Roman Catholic. The message will congratulate the 83-year-old Pope on his anniversary, an official said.

It is the second time Welch has traveled to Rome as the city's representative.

In November 1994 she accompanied Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke when the pope elected Keeler to the College of Cardinals.

Welch's biography on the city government's Web site states that she was the recipient of a service award from the pope and that she is active in St. Edwards Catholic Church in West Baltimore.

Welch did not return calls for comment.

A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the city should reconsider covering the expense.

"Apparently all the needs of Baltimore have been met if they can afford [nearly] $3,000 to send an elected official to Rome for a church service," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman with the Washington-based group.

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said maintaining good relations with the Vatican on behalf of the city's Catholics is as important as forging positive relationships with other cities, counties and states.

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