A gift ready for Christmas

Restored: Damaged by fire in August, a church reopens its doors for the holiday Mass with only hours to spare.

December 26, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The new black cherry carpet had not yet been laid. The wooden pews were not yet secured. And everything still needed cleaning when parishioners of St. Mary's Assumption Eastern Rite Catholic Church in Joppa entered their sanctuary Sunday for the first time since lightning struck Aug. 29.

Franciscan friar Salvatore Allessie, for one, was certain that it wouldn't be ready for Christmas services. Even on Christmas Eve, as the congregation celebrated Mass in the little schoolhouse across the parking lot - using a desk as an altar - the repair work continued.

But yesterday morning, 50 members of the largely immigrant congregation filed into a building as good as new.

"Perfect," one woman called it.

"Unbelievable" was Allessie's description.

"Maybe this is a gift from God," said Wanda Linhart, 60, of Patterson Park.

Maybe? The church's pastor, the Very Rev. Ivan Dornic, is sure of it.

He explains what happened this way: "When people are doing great things for God, the devil starts making trouble. Lightning struck, but God intervened because the church was saved. We defeated the devil."

Not that it was easy, said Dornic, who gave parishioners a sneak peak at the restored sanctuary before Sunday's Mass at the adjoining Holy Cross Academy. "We had to push it, day and night."

The fire marked the second time in the century-old church's recent history that it was nearly destroyed - and the second time Dornic had to scour the world to find craftsmen with sufficient expertise to rebuild it.

The Gothic building, featuring a steeply sloped roof topped with a cupola, was built in 1887 as St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church in Fallston. In the mid-1980s, Dornic stepped in when he heard of the Baltimore Archdiocese's plans to demolish the building so it could construct a bigger one for a growing parish. He arranged to move the structure, board by board, to a wooded 80-acre site on Mountain Road near Interstate 95 in Joppa, and rename it St. Mary's, a Byzantine Catholic congregation.

In that case, the fact that the building is made entirely of wood was its saving grace.

Seeking able craftsmen with experience in historic buildings, Dornic looked first to Amish carpenters in Lancaster, Pa., only to have them back out when their bishop said he didn't want them working for a Catholic church. So he searched his native Czechoslovakia, finding three brothers who restore old buildings.

The church was rebuilt on the new site. But on Aug. 29, 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. Friday Mass, lightning struck the roof and ignited a fire.

This time, the fact that the building is made entirely from wood almost meant the end of it.

But the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company responded immediately, Dornic said, and the flames were extinguished before all was lost. Damage, mostly to the roof and the balcony, was estimated at $200,000.

The brothers Dornic hired last time couldn't get back into the country. So he turned to his own brother, an architect still living in eastern Europe, who found two craftsmen in Slovakia, one in Poland, and two native Slovakians living in Florida. Dornic also hired a few guys from Baltimore to do plaster, painting and drywall work.

Dornic said the church's insurance company found a contractor to do the repairs for $100,000, and thus would only cover that much. But Dornic insisted on using his own people, who would do a historic restoration and scramble to meet his self-imposed deadline of re-opening for Christmas morning. American contractors, he said, would have taken until at least next spring.

Dornic is still figuring out how to cover the rest of the bill. But he said the generosity of his craftsmen, who are working for below market rate because they love saving old buildings, has gone a long way.

He is also fussing over the finishing touches that need to be done. The ivory walls need another coat of paint, the pews need refurbishing, and the insulation beneath the floor needs replacing.

Outside in the yard, a stack of lumber and the rolls of old carpet - a lighter shade of rose, covered by a blue tarp - need to be hauled away.

With the destroyed organ not replaced, organist Magdalena Svirlova had to improvise with a portable electronic keyboard and her usual violin.

Still, what is done was enough to leave the congregation in awe. Five bronze lamps hung from dark wood beams crossing the vaulted ceiling.

Dornic even managed to set up Christmas decorations. The altar was lined with a dozen red poinsettias. On each side was a small Christmas tree, adorned with pine cones and red, green and yellow beads and ribbons. Eight stained-glass windows on side walls were each topped with simple wreaths.

Dornic opened yesterday's 10 a.m. Mass with a blessing of the restored church. "Be our shelter when we are here," he said, "our companion when we are away."

With the latest ordeal nearly behind him, Dornic is returning his attention to his dream of turning the 80-acre site - still mostly wooded - into a refuge for other historic church buildings at risk of demolition.

"In America, we tear down historic buildings without much trouble," he said. "That's the trouble with America. Americans don't have a sense of history."

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