Cardinal to bless new church in Carroll

St. John's $6 million home opens for growing parish

October 25, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The steeple rises 50 feet above a brick building that is majestic in its classic simplicity and newness. An intricate carving of St. John the Evangelist is a backlighted beacon to motorists passing on the highway below. A century-old statue of Christ dominates a vestibule that opens to a gleaming, sun-drenched sanctuary, where a pair of sculpted angels, cleaned of years of grime, guard the altar.

Westminster's newest landmark is St. John Church's new home. The $6.5 million project was 10 years in the making - and it is the largest Roman Catholic church to be built in the Baltimore Archdiocese in more than four decades.

The faithful will worship there for the first time tomorrow. But only after Cardinal William H. Keeler blesses the building.

As some urban parishes wither and in some cases close, 150-year-old St. John Church is thriving in fast-growing Carroll County. The parish census has increased tenfold in the past 30 years, to 14,000. With standing room only at most of its eight weekend Masses, the parish, the fourth-largest of the 162 in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has long needed more spacious quarters.

Not entirely satisfied with the relatively stark feel of the sanctuary built in 1972, the parish embarked on a plan to blend old and new in a 20,000-square-foot space, with seating for 1,200.

The new building's marble altar is 138 years old and was used in the church's original home, as well as in its second. The angels flanking the altar adorned the first building but then spent years in storage. Parishioners discovered the sculptures in the hayloft of a Carroll County farm.

"We have tried to incorporate the idea that a church is the people of God by using artifacts that go back to the beginning of our parish," said Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, pastor of St. John Church since 1993. "They are the foundation that brings us into the future. This building really is church, built by its parishioners."

The original, Gothic-style St. John's, built in 1853, stood on Main Street for more than a century. A parish history says the steeple was visible from all parts of the city and "the first landmark to distinguish Westminster to visitors."

The steeple was toppled by a storm in 1952. By the late 1960s, the church building was deemed structurally unsound and had to be razed. Parishioners scrambled to store its statues, stained glass, art and other artifacts in barns, sheds and garages. (The Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library occupies the site of the original church.)

The congregation met in space borrowed from churches of various denominations until it could build the modern, circular church on the western outskirts of the city. Then, the parish served about 400 families. Today 4,200 families are registered members. Projections put the parish enrollment at 15,000 people by 2005.

The growth is in contrast with the shrinking urban parishes in the Baltimore Archdiocese. St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Fells Point closed three years ago, and Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in the Turners Station area of Dundalk celebrated its final Mass in August. Two other Baltimore City parishes closed within the past eight years and several were merged as their congregations dwindled, according to archdiocesan officials.

About 10 years ago, parishioners at St. John's began planning for what archdiocesan officials say is the largest Catholic church built in the Baltimore area since the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen opened in 1959. It is designed to allow the addition of three balconies that could bring its total capacity to nearly 2,000 - virtually the same as the cathedral.

During the design and fund-raising phase, the parish set out to find and use the artifacts from the original church. After three decades, many items had been lost, sold or long forgotten.

The parish found 10 stained glass windows and several statues. From a barn, parishioners recovered all 14 Stations of the Cross, six-foot-tall plaster scenes that depict the story of Calvary. They were later cleaned and refinished in soft hues.

The two intricately carved and hefty marble angels, covered in filth in the hayloft, were hauled in a trailer back to the church.

"The only reason they were never sold was because the family could never get them down from there," said Terry Jones, who has chaired the building committee for eight years and is parish facilities manager. "It took four big men to load them onto the trailer. The first thing we did was drive them through the carwash."

The parish also decided to use the altar, built of white and rose marble, and the baptismal font that had made the move from the original church to the 1972 building. The organ has been rebuilt three times since 1910, but its pipes date to the original church.

"You don't throw the past out," said the Rev. John V. DoBranski, former assistant pastor and building committee member, who serves at Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City. "You carry it into the future."

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