Church should focus on priorities, some say

Baltimore-area Catholics question spending money on restoration of basilica

November 04, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Carol Coates can't help but compare the splendor that is to be revealed today in Baltimore's restored basilica with the worn look of her own West Baltimore parish.

Why, she wonders, was more than $32 million spent on the Basilica of the Assumption, while bullet holes pockmark a glass window at St. Peter Claver Church and worshipers are directed not to sit in several broken pews? "When you see your own church within the city and nothing being done, you just feel a little bit leery about that," she said.

But Cardinal William H. Keeler and officials with the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc. say the project to revitalize the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral did not divert the archdiocese's attention from other needs or responsibilities. They acknowledge that some of the urban parishes and parochial schools are struggling, and even closing, but say they have stepped up their fundraising for these local needs.

Keeler, the president of the Basilica Historic Trust, said he appealed nationally for private restoration donations, and made fundraising for schools, parishes and charities a priority over the basilica in capital campaigns that have yielded millions.

"We've tried to take care of our responsibility to the inner-city schools, the schools in general," Keeler said in a recent interview. "I have subordinated all of the work on behalf of the basilica to do that."

Like Coates, some Baltimore-area Catholics are quietly questioning the spending of more than $32 million to restore the basilica at Cathedral and Mulberry streets. "The cardinal could have used his energies in getting some community people involved in propping up the [Catholic school] system," said Edward M. McDonnell of Loch Raven Village.

When the basilica project was first announced more than a decade ago, Keeler refused to allow special collections during Masses or a direct mailing to parishioners, said Mark J. Potter, the historic trust's executive director. Nor did he use money from Lenten appeals.

During the archdiocese's "Heritage of Hope" capital campaign, which concluded in 1998, parishioners pledged more than $136 million for Catholic school infrastructure, parishes and other needs. They directed about $2.5 million from the campaign toward the basilica.

Keeler also pointed to a $56 million capital campaign for Catholic Charities, which will open a new building for Our Daily Bread with expanded services in the spring. Its current building on Cathedral Street, next to the basilica's main entrance, will be renovated for My Sister's Place, the women and children's shelter.

"The assumption is that if this [basilica] project did not exist, [donors] would immediately turn their dollars to Catholic schools or Catholic charities," Potter said.

Yet as of September, about 50 percent of the more than $26 million raised came from outside the Archdiocese of Baltimore, in recognition of the basilica's history and architecture, Potter said.

Contributions have also been coming from about 40 Catholic communities around the country, including $50,000 donations from two Florida dioceses - Orlando and Venice - and $100,000 from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Knights of Columbus, a national Catholic men's group based in New Haven, Conn., and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, have each given $1 million to the project. The Society of St. Sulpice, the religious order that started and operates St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park, donated $2 million.

Potter said the basilica drew donors attracted to its architectural merit and history. "The basilica parish could never have afforded to restore the basilica," he said. Parishioners of the basilica, which draws about 400 families from the Baltimore area, also pledged more than $500,000.

Still, some question the investment of energy on saving the basilica while at least 20 schools have closed or consolidated since 1997.

"They're spending all this money on the building, but yet you have to think about the souls of the people you're helping in the city," said Debbie Wyda of Towson.

The 57-year-old graduate of the former Mount St. Agnes High School in Mount Washington was angry when she read in 2001 that St. Alphonsus-Basilica School was closing - the same day she read that Pope John Paul II blessed the multimillion-dollar basilica project.

"It doesn't reflect good on the church as a whole. It still doesn't seem like they have their priorities in order," said Tom Schruefer. He was the home-school association president of St. Rita School in Dundalk until it closed at the end of the last school year because of debt and declining enrollment.

Schruefer said he understands that many of the basilica donors targeted their gifts for that project, but he wonders whether St. Rita's parents could have saved their school with some professional fundraising expertise and more warning about their fate. The group raised nearly $90,000 for the school last year, he said.

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