A century old and still thriving

St. Margaret's Church celebrates 100 years filled with challenges, growth and an eye to the future


On Oct. 1, 1905, about 180 people gathered for the consecration of Bel Air's St. Margaret Church, a modest Gothic-style structure.

A century later, the Catholic church on Hickory Avenue is perhaps the greatest success story in the region, having grown into the largest parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, with about 18,000 members, 40 employees and an annual budget of $3 million.

In the intervening 100 years, the church underwent several expansions, navigated the turbulence accompanying the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and weathered a nine-month shutdown to remove asbestos.

"St. Margaret's is a story of good things happening," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, head of the archdiocese, who will preside Saturday at the church's Centennial Mass. "It's a story of a parish that's growing and growing and growing. It's wonderful that it's still alive and thriving after 100 years."

Like many Catholic churches, St. Margaret faces challenges, including a shortage of land for further expansion and the decline in men entering the priesthood, while it continues to try to expand its ministry with initiatives such as opening a homeless shelter.

"The number of Catholics is growing and will continue to grow if we are true to the Gospel," said the Rev. Francis X. Callahan, pastor since 1986. "And, because of the limited land available for expansion, we would have to make enormous changes if the growth continues as it has been."

Almost every facet of the church has experienced exponential growth. St. Margaret School, founded in 1911 with 43 pupils on the first floor of a private residence, now enrolls 900 in prekindergarten through eighth grade. The school operates on its own $3 million budget, is spread out among three buildings and has 89 employees.

The church's religion education program -- weekly classes attended primarily by children from the parish who don't attend St. Margaret School -- has four directors and 1,200 pupils who are taught by 100 volunteers.

St. Margaret has the highest Sunday attendance -- as many as 7,000 people -- in the 154-parish archdiocese, making Mass quite a production. The typical Sunday service requires four or five ushers, two altar servers, two or three readers, a presider, a choir of about 40, musicians and 12 eucharistic ministers.

The original church was financed by Father J. Alphonse Frederick, who used money he inherited from his parents. For the first two years, Frederick was pastor of both St. Ignatius, the first parish in the county, and St. Margaret. He was pastor at St. Margaret until 1918.

The evolution of the church was slow but steady, occurring with the growth of Bel Air, said Jim Chrismer, who is working on writing the church's history.

The original church was built with the intention of converting it into a school. However, a private home was donated on the condition it be used as a school and a convent.

From 1911 to 1927, the school operated from the house but became a financial drain on the church. Tuition was free to parishioners, while nonparishioners paid a small fee.

Eventually, the school outgrew the house and a new structure was built in 1927.

In the 1950s, the school began charging a fee to all pupils, to help offset increasing costs. Subsequently, the parish had explosive growth, spurred largely by the baby boom.

"Americans had a much more disposable income and were starting families," said Chrismer, who teaches history at John Carroll High School.

An addition to the church was built in 1956. Growth continued, and within six years another addition was constructed.

At the same time, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to consider fundamental reforms of several aspects of the church worldwide.

The council decreed several changes, including increased involvement of lay members and substantial changes in the liturgy. For many churches, the reforms were divisive.

"In the beginning of the church, the priest had his back to the parishioners, who sat and read their prayer books and knelt and said their rosary," Chrismer said. "When the church said the parishioners were to actively participate in the Mass, some people decided to leave."

The expanded role of lay parishioners resulted in the creation of the Parish Council, which assists with operations of the church.

St. Margaret outgrew its original structure and again built a new church, completed in 1969. Some parishioners complained that the new building didn't look like a church, the pastor said.

"It didn't look like what they envisioned when they went into a Catholic church, so they left," Callahan said.

Another wave of new parishioners arrived in the 1980s and into the '90s. Along with the structural additions came Callahan, who arrived from a Baltimore parish that had about 200 families. St. Margaret, with its more than 2,000 families at the time, was overwhelming at first, he said.

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