Havre de Grace parish celebrates centennial

History of the 100-year-old building highlighted

August 12, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

For the second time in a history that spans 160 years, the Church of St. Patrick in Havre de Grace blessed a polished slab of granite and rededicated its imposing stone building to another century of ministry.

The blessing of the cornerstone, imprinted with a cross between the years 1847 and 1907, launched a yearlong celebration of the building's centennial and drew nearly 500 parishioners on Thursday. They posed on the church steps and followed a bagpiper to a social in the church hall, which was filled with parish memorabilia.

"We are celebrating a milestone," said the Rev. William J. O'Brien, pastor since 1999. "This gives us a chance to look back over 100 years to see where we have been and where we are going."

Early parishioners donated dimes and quarters for 16 years before they had raised enough money to build the stark gray, neo-Gothic structure that dominates Congress Avenue near the city's downtown.

"A 1907 balance sheet details the entire cost for everything, from the windows and organ to the stone work," said Michael Hayes, parishioner. "The ledger of donations shows families giving 25 cents at a time."

The granite building, with its towering steeple and bell tower, would be the third and most enduring church and the one that bears witness to the work of a beloved pastor, the Rev. James P. FitzGerald. He arrived in 1891 and soon began the fundraising campaign for a new church. He remained at St. Patrick's for more than 40 years.

Beneath FitzGerald's photo, which hangs in a church alcove, is a plaque that reads, "With his own hands, he built this church."

The priest helped mine granite from a quarry across the Susquehanna River in Port Deposit and lent his experience as a stone mason to the project.

"They harvested stone in Port Deposit, brought it across the river on barges and then by horse and wagon to the location," said parishioner Al Lenhard. "They laid the cornerstone in August 1907 and built the church in 10 months. It would take longer than that to get a permit now."

Parishioners built the 250-seat church for $51,522.

"It is a small building by today's standards," said O'Brien. "But, when they built it, they thought it was quite large."

The parish history dates to 1847 and a chapel near Mount Erin Cemetery, where FitzGerald was buried in 1946. A replica of that chapel sits atop a hill in the cemetery.

"The story was that the parish outgrew the chapel and that people got tired of walking up the hill," Hayes said.

From there, St. Patrick's moved to a building at Stokes and Warren streets, which today houses a revivalist church and the local Knights of Columbus council.

At the turn of the 20th century, about 50 families formed St. Patrick's parish, most of them Irish or Italian immigrants. Today, the parish numbers more than 1,050 families.

"The steps inside are white Italian marble," Hayes said. "The risers at the sanctuary are green for the Irish parishioners."

The 22 exquisitely detailed stained-glass windows were donated by parish families and dedicated to loved ones.

"When we speak of the beauty of the church and its many treasures, we can easily be fooled into thinking this celebration is all about a building," O'Brien said. "It is about a church and we ourselves, our ancestors and our progeny are the living stones of this house of God."

Many parishioners signed the dedication quilt that will hang in the church hall. They looked through sepia-toned photos and newspaper clippings and often found a familiar face in the albums.

O'Brien reminded his flock that they were "the real treasures of St. Patrick's."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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