Longtime parishioner St. Mary's 'guardian angel'

Henry Robert takes care of Annapolis landmark

January 17, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

It's early evening, and a calm has come over St. Mary's Church - the Gothic structure that towers over downtown Annapolis.

One by one, the staff of the rectory have locked up and headed home. The buses from the Catholic parish's schools have crawled away, carrying crowds of squealing students.

The halls have grown silent, and the lights have dimmed.

But this evening - like most - a lone light flickers in the window of the rectory.

To some, its glow might be mysterious. But to the members of St. Mary's, it is a familiar reminder of the man behind the scenes of the historic red-brick church.

Henry Robert, a parishioner since 1941 whose grandfather penned Robert's Rules of Order, has been living in the rectory of St. Mary's for 15 years - taking care of everything from the polishing of candlesticks to the preservation of the church's history.

"He's the guardian angel of the place," said the Rev. Denis J. Sweeney, pastor of St. Mary's. "I always tell people that a few Henrys could turn any parish around." Not that St. Mary's needs a boost.

Today, the church ends a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary with a commemorative Mass - to be held at 5 p.m. - honoring its members, history and staggering growth over the past several years.

St. Mary's, at 109 Duke of Gloucester St., boasts about 15,000 members and continues to grow. In 2002, the parish completed construction of a new church - St. John Neumann on Bestgate Road - which holds 850 members, 300 more than St. Mary's.

"For most churches, the lights have dimmed after 150 years," Sweeney said. "Ours have only gotten brighter."

For the anniversary, St. Mary's got a facelift - a $1 million renovation. Removing the fans and pale paint from its ceiling, artists painted it a deep blue with gold stars.

The church also held a series of special Masses, invited missionaries to visit and launched outreach programs. Naturally - with more than a century behind it - St. Mary's also took a hard look at its history.

For Robert, often called the "walking encyclopedia" of the parish, this meant a demanding year. In addition to leading impromptu tours and preparing the church for Mass, Robert served as a consultant for a book about the history of St. Mary's, scheduled for publication this week.

Its author, Robert L. Worden, is the archivist for St. Mary's. While writing the book, Worden said he often called on Robert, whom he has known for more than three decades.

"He never ceases to amaze me with his breadth, depth and interest in all topics," said Worden.

A graduate of the Great Books program at St. John's College, Robert worked for many years as a physicist, and then as the co-author of four updated versions of the famous Robert's Rules of Order, a system of parliamentary procedures written by his grandfather in 1876.

Robert has also served as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1975, and is an oblate of the Redemptorist Order, a recognition the church confers upon laymen to recognize extraordinary dedication.

A modest man, bearded and bespectacled, Robert dodges questions about his personal life. When asked his age, he would only say: "World War II Vintage." He was never married, has no children, and is a convert to Catholicism.

Beyond these details, Robert is stone-faced and silent. It is only when he talks about the history of his home that he grows animated.

In sum, the story of St. Mary's goes something like this:

Throughout most of the Colonial days, Catholics were forbidden by law to hold public office, vote or worship in public. Which is why, in the late 1600s, Charles Carroll - the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence - invited a small group of Catholics in Annapolis to worship in his home.

Carroll died in 1832, and passed on his property to his daughters. It was one of his granddaughters - Maryanne Caton Patterson - who oversaw the building of St. Mary's, a small church on the site of the current building.

In 1852, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) - which came to Annapolis from Baltimore - acquired the Carroll House and grounds. The order built a church with the help of rector Michael Mueller, who went door-to-door collecting money for St. Mary's. Mueller wanted to build a church for 500. At the time, there were no more than 100 Catholics in the area.

"People thought he was crazy," Robert said. But Mueller persevered, and between 1858 and 1860, St. Mary's church was constructed.

Deacon Anthony Norcio, ordained in 1998, said he hopes to videotape one of Robert's tours for those interested in the history of St. Mary's.

"Henry is a very bright guy, and I think very highly of him," Norcio said. "He also works really hard - opening the doors of the church and locking them at night. It's kind of a joke around here that no one knows when Henry sleeps!"

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