Into the night, seeking candles and incense

December 24, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

If I'm energetic on a Dec. 24th night, I'll take in several churches, and by no means will they all be Roman Catholic. I've got friends who sing in choirs all over the place. Why not hear as much live Christmas music as possible in a city where there seems to be a church on very corner?

I have no set routine for the midnight Mass except that I prefer one that truly commences at that hour. Earlier in the evening, I'll be at the old Guilford Avenue house with my extended family, and once the noise quiets, I'll slip out into a December night in search lighted beeswax candles and four-alarm incense.

The final hours of Dec. 24 offer me the chance to dart all over old Baltimore. I like to see what turns up, what choir is doing the Gounod Sanctus or where will I hear the rarest verses of "Silent Night," the ones that are never recorded on albums. What I don't want is modern, atonal music or anything composed by John Rutter.

Last year, I was put in a car and hauled downtown to St. Alphonsus Church on Saratoga Street for what became my first midnight Mass at this address.

I thought that if I didn't like it, I could always slip out fast and head up Park Avenue to the Anglicans at Grace & St. Peter's, where, as it happened, Franz Schubert was on the bill.

But out of reverence to my great-grandparents, who were married at St. Alphonsus about 130 years ago, I thought I'd give it a spin.

Last Christmas Eve was brutally cold. We had trouble finding a parking space and finally found an open curb up in the old Asian neighborhood where my grandfather told me he knelt, on the sidewalk, for Cardinal Gibbons' funeral - held blocks away at the Old Cathedral. The crowds were that large.

The congregation at St. Alphonsus likes its rites and rituals very traditional - often strictly in Latin. I grew up with this tradition, but I'm not always patient enough to sit through its full, five-act proportions.

It turned out to be an amazing Baltimore experience. The faithful carried prayer books and missals held together with reinforcing tape and rubber bands.

The old organ thundered away; I was enchanted by the voices in the choir, whose members reminded me of the sales staff at the old Hochschild Kohn department store. Their voices were not overly trained, and I would not say it was a conservatory sound. But the pitch was perfect Baltimore, all heart and smiles and courtesy.

The congregation was wonderfully diverse, too; it seemed to have a representative from every postal zone in the city. I sat toward the back, my eyes trained on the long main aisle and the glowing high altar.

I forget what time they turned the organ off, but I think it was toward 2 a.m.

Then we walked up Park Avenue, and I witnessed a fistfight outside a carryout food parlor that seemed to be doing a walloping late-night business. Was this medieval London, or just old Baltimore?

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