Archdiocese proclaims a gospel of real estate

August 10, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Until the lawyer for the archdiocese mentioned it the other day, I didn't know urban renewal and edifice-building were in the realm of the evangelist. I assumed an evangelist was simply a passionate preacher of the Christian Gospel. I should have paid better attention in theology class. Who knew the mission involved razing a historic apartment building in the midst of downtown Baltimore's efforts to preserve, renew and provide more affordable housing?

But, nice thing about life and the newspaper business: You learn something every day.

Monday, we learned from the archdiocese's lawyer that, in tearing down the Rochambeau Apartments, the Roman Catholic Church is "doing the work of an evangelist."

Added David Kinkopf: "That's the mission that's been handed to the archdiocese here, and this is what motivates their plan for a prayer garden."

Pardon me while I have an epiphany: Spending more than $30 million to renovate the Basilica of the Assumption, then moving past assurances to the contrary to tear down the nearby Rochambeau so that more money can be spent on a prayer garden and visitors' center - that's not just lavish spending with a dash of general disregard for your community's best interests - that's the stuff of evangelism!

How did I miss this?

Actually, anyone who has followed the life of Cardinal William Keeler should expect the invoking of evangelism somewhere along the line, and particularly at junctures where the mission is in question. It's one of the cardinal's favorite themes.

You can look it up. It's in the motto that appears at the bottom of the cardinal's coat of arms: "Opus fac evangilistae." That means, "Do the work of an evangelist." (Baltimore's previous cardinal, Lawrence Shehan, had a motto, too: "Omnia in caritate," which means, "Everything in charity.")

Until the lawyer invoked the evangelism thing, I wasn't going to say anything about the Rochambeau. I don't think it's that attractive, and I suppose it blocks a certain view of the grand old basilica. But, on the other hand, I can't get excited about tearing down one piece of historic Baltimore to improve the view of another - particularly when the effort counters a worthwhile civic goal of creating new housing.

But, most important of all, I knew it would not make a lick of difference what I or anyone else had to say against the Razing of the Roch.

The cardinal was for it.

End of story.

The archdiocese acquired the fine, old building a few years ago, pretty much under the radar of everyone involved in downtown development. When it became public knowledge, there were assurances from the archdiocese that the Rochambeau would not be torn down.

And so much for that.

Once all those millions went into the basilica, did we expect any other outcome?

All the historic preservationists who implored the archdiocese to fix it up instead of tearing it down - what planet are they from?

Are they Catholic, any of them? I know my colleague Jacques Kelly is, and he wrote a polite column suggesting that the Rochambeau be saved. But even Jacques had to know he was preaching to stone.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy. (If it were, there would have been a referendum on the basilica project, and parishioners would have had a chance to vote: a. Yes, let's raise millions to fix the place up; b. Let's make modest improvements; really, the place isn't that bad, or, c. Skip it and spend the money on more charity; hearts need to be restored, not buildings.) So, of course, it's not as if opinion of the laity matters.

If the cardinal wanted to raise and spend on the basilica millions that could have gone to, say, free parochial school tuition for poor Baltimore kids, if he wanted to undermine Baltimore's urban renewal policy of preserving historic buildings and spurring residential development by flattening the Rochambeau - then who was going to defy him?

Who was going to tell Keeler that the Rochambeau had tremendous potential as part of Charles Street's revival? Martin O'Malley? Paul Graziano? Dan Rodricks, the son of the former Rose Popolo?

In this matter, the cardinal was apparently willing to spend more money on a legal battle to prove the city of Baltimore could not deny a demolition permit to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Graziano, the city's housing commissioner, believed the church would win.

That's the only reason he approved the demolition permit, saying that no other developer would have received it. "If all the other facts were the same," Graziano said, "I would have denied the permit."

So, look, the outcome was never in doubt. No one was going to call the archdiocese's spending on the basilica out of proportion to the church's true mission, and no one was going to get into a brawl with the cardinal over an old, vacant apartment building.

If the archdiocese cared about public opinion, the Rochambeau would have been spared and turned into new apartments, or redeveloped into condominiums with a visitors' center to serve the basilica.

But the archdiocese doesn't have to care about vox populi. Really, it's amazing the archdiocese even waited to get a demolition permit. When you're an evangelist, you don't need a license.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks.

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