A hard-working priest's years of efforts pay off at St. Ignatius school

October 01, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

On my way home the other evening, I spotted Father Bill Watters crossing Madison Street and casting a critical eye at a left-behind student backpack, momentarily abandoned on a city sidewalk where possessions disappear quickly. It was the dismissal hour at an all-boys middle school, and it was producing the kind of jumping khaki-pants bedlam that erupts when classroom-bound young minds get sprung for the day.

This was the same Watters I took a phone call from in the late summer of 1991, when he'd come to Baltimore as the newly appointed pastor of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, where my parents and I have attended since streetcars ran past the front door.

New on the job, he was in characteristic form. That September day, he wanted the tubs of geraniums in the front of the church fixed up; this was only the beginning. In the past 14 years, the man has never stopped. I never saw a construction project, objective or details he didn't like; his energy was always up to his vision.

What he inherited back then was not envious. It was an aging congregation in a historic but physically problematic set of buildings. The worst thing were the rumors. We were told we were the smallest of the Roman Catholic parishes in the archdiocese and were marked on a hit list for closing.

Watters listened to none of this. It didn't take long before he was confiding to my father, Joe Kelly, that instead of closing anything, he wanted to reopen, so to speak, a version of a school the Jesuits opened on Calvert Street in 1855 but had transferred to the suburbs before World War II.

For so many years now, I've watched Baltimore transform itself; perhaps the experience at St. Ignatius has been one of the most rewarding from an emotional standpoint. It's one thing to walk through a commercially reconfigured harbor. It's another to watch underused church school rooms, opened 150 years ago, resound with loud sixth-graders, who in a couple years will be properly trained for high schools they will attend.

No matter that there was no real playground; no matter the buildings were pre-Civil War. No matter that the archdiocese was regularly closing schools, not opening them.

But let's not discount what I call the physical and spiritual pull of the ancient altars of old Baltimore. My mother patronized a rich circuit of diverse Baltimore religious venues and much approved of St. Ignatius, where she had been married. My father, Jesuit-educated, was a pushover. So come Sunday mornings, we were off to the old church at Calvert and Madison.

In his years at Calvert and Madison, Watters seemed to never take a day off. He seemed to have an assignment for all -- and few declined. That was the case this past December, when I took another call from him. An underground water source in troublesome Madison Street had ruined a new floor in the church hall. Could I build a Christmas garden here to deflect attention from warping boards? Within a week, the electric train was running to critical success.

Sunday morning is not quite the first day of the week without emerging from the pews and stepping on the Calvert Street sidewalk. Most times I glance at a stout white marble block set at the curb line. As a child, I was told it had been placed there for the convenience of the parish grandees to alight, with dignity, from their horse-drawn carriages. These days, Watters' merry scholars use it as a limestone trampoline.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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