State's birthday event gets new organizer

Historical society takes over Maryland Day from volunteer women's group

March 25, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Today marks the 370th anniversary of the founding of Maryland, but this time the Maryland Day birthday party in Baltimore is a little different.

The Maryland Historical Society has organized the affair, after the Maryland Colonial Society decided it no longer had the resources to lead the annual event. Women in the colonial society have shouldered organization of the occasion since the early 1940s.

"We hated to do it, but we're all getting up there in years," said Marie L. Lerch, a member of the colonial society. "Several members had sickness over the summer, and we realized we couldn't go on."

The main difference is that the ceremony is moving several blocks - from the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on Calvert Street to the Maryland Historical Society on Monument Street.

The Maryland state anthem, a color guard and a statewide essay contest winner will be featured today, as they have been for years. Elected officials, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, are on the program. And the traditional wreath-laying at the foot of the Cecilius Calvert statue -by the St. Paul Street entrance to the courthouse - to honor the Lord Baltimore who made good on his father's royal charter, will be carried out this morning.

"It's a transition year," said Dennis Fiori, executive director of the Maryland Historical Society, a Mount Vernon institution that has a new library and recently expanded quarters. "We'll have an evening speaker on the English Civil War and its effect on Maryland who will coincide with the event."

The generational handover is similar to that of the Flower Mart, which was run for decades by the Women's Civic League until a younger set of civic volunteers with marketplace knowledge recently revitalized the May event.

The colonial society found that workplace trends had worked against them. "Young women years ago would step into the traces, but now they have their own careers," said Lois Jones, 79, a colonial society member who oversees the yearly high school essay contest on a Maryland history theme.

Lerch, a Savannah, Ga., native, joined the women's volunteer society after her marriage 54 years ago. In recent years, the society began admitting men, but the number of active members has declined from about 40 to 19 or 20, society officials said.

So last year, colonial society leaders approached retired city Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes, a longtime regular presence at the Maryland Day courthouse rituals, about their problem. Byrnes, chairman of the Baltimore City Historical Society, said he hoped to see the ritual take on a greater statewide significance, which is why he suggested a conversation with Fiori at the Maryland Historical Society. The pitch to Fiori, he said, was that an old holiday needed new life.

Fiori told Byrnes and the colonial society he would be delighted to accept the mantle of Maryland Day, which marks the colony's founding in 1634 with the first Roman Catholic Mass in Maryland on St. Clements Island in what today is St. Mary's County. Those who celebrated the Mass had sailed from England on the Ark and the Dove in a three-month trans-Atlantic crossing from the Isle of Wight. The purpose was to establish a colony - which King Charles I deemed "a noble and pious purpose."

Byrnes said Maryland was the first English colony that codified freedom of worship into law, even if it did not always practice that ideal.

"This ceremony is our way of celebrating who we are as a state, including freedom of religion," Byrnes said. "There was a higher purpose than simply commerce in this particular state history."

Clarisse Mechanic, a philanthropist, is scheduled to be honored as Marylander of the Year today.

Byrnes said he and other courthouse denizens always considered Maryland Day worthwhile.

"I'm just very happy that it's going to continue," he said. "We don't want it to die. The accent is on Colonial Maryland, but you try to keep it up to date."

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