In city, an enduring haven for hopeless

October 28, 2007|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun reporter

The shrine of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases, gave up on candles years ago. The lights surrounding the martyr's statue are actually little glass bulbs that people switch on while praying - for an ailing child, perhaps, or a depressed spouse. Wax tapers were prettier, but dozens were often lit and "it got so hot in here," said Mary Gerk, who works at the Saratoga Street shrine. "All that flame and smoke."

Every bulb will likely be burning this weekend, when the west-side shrine expects to receive more than a thousand pilgrims in honor of today's feast of St. Jude. The saint of things despaired of is a major presence here in Baltimore, and tour buses filled with senior citizens and Hispanic prayer groups have been pulling up to the building for several weeks now in anticipation of the holiday.

The faithful come from New York City and beyond in order to hear a Mass - offered in English, Spanish or Creole - in the saint's honor, to slip prayers, scrawled on slips of paper, into the glass box at his statue's feet, and to kiss the golden case that is said to contain a fragment of his bone. This high season of pilgrimage is a boon for the shrine, which serves, for most of the year, as a repository for sadness, and a final refuge for hope.

"People are troubled by so many things," says the Rev. Louis Micca, pastoral director of the shrine, which is one of the largest and best-known in the country. "And we are called to help the hopeless."

Every day, through the mail, the Internet, and a prayer telephone line, the St. Jude shrine receives requests for the saint's help in all sorts of matters, many of them grim. Supplicants also come to plead in person, kneeling before the saint's statue inside the church, or lingering in the pews with bowed heads. Many of them are sick, living in Baltimore to be close to the hospitals; there is a special place near the pulpit for wheelchairs and even stretchers.

And then there are those visitors who may not realize precisely whom they've called on for help. Homeless people, addicts, and others in dire straits often wander into the shrine looking for food or cab fare or money for the gas bill. In this neighborhood, an endless supply of desperate cases waits just outside the door.

"Every day they come in, needing things," says Cookie Carpenter, who volunteers at the shrine's information desk. "Some of them want money; some want to pray. Some want someone to talk to."

And some stay outside, pestering emerging pilgrims for spare change or stealing the handicapped markers from their cars to sell.

It is difficult for the priests and volunteers to both care for these people and be wary, to fulfill and protect the shrine's mission at the same time. In the past some visitors have felt hopeless enough to attempt to steal the shrine's poor boxes, which are now bolted down; even the St. Jude relic is hooked up to an alarm. Two signs hang in a waiting area near the gift shop: One says "Not Responsible for Lost or Stolen Property;" the other, "Christ's Love Urges Us On."

The forgotten apostle

Catholics from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia regularly attend services at the shrine, but it is not a parish, a community designed to shepherd believers from baptism all the way through the last rites. Rather, the church, run by the Pallottine religious order, is a destination for those who seek it out on the feast day each October or during an hour of need. The priests offer counseling, and there are limited hand-outs for the poor, but mostly the building is meant for prayer.

People pray for everything under the sun - for incarcerated sons and sisters missing for 23 years and the neighbor's heart test. For husbands who have just been airlifted to the hospital and houses about to be foreclosed on. It's one of Carpenter's jobs to sift through the prayer line calls in the mornings; every once in a while, she says, St. Jude gets hit up for something unusual: one regular caller prays fervently for more hats.

But mostly the prayers well up from deep sadness. Someone mails in a picture of a sick baby. Someone asks for a longer life for a loved one, or an easy death.

"I pray for my wife - she needs three insulin shots a day," says Ishmael Jimenez, who traveled from Virginia to attend a noon Mass recently.

"I've prayed for my loneliness," said 25-year-old Imelda Turgo, a University of Maryland nurse who sought out the shrine after moving from the Philippines this year. "I've prayed so hard to St. Jude."

A contemporary of Jesus Christ, the saint is sometimes called the forgotten apostle, because little is known about his life, and because he is often confused with Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. Jude is believed to have preached and been martyred in Persia; in many likenesses, including the statue at the shrine, he holds the club he was supposedly beaten to death with.

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