By 8:30 a.m. yesterday, the first sign had already gone up.
"God bless father Michael Salerno
We love and support you!"
Mary Ann Campanella, a third-generation Little Italy resident, had taped the homemade sign in a window of her rowhouse, above her late mother's statue of the Virgin Mary. The inquiries soon followed.
A few hours later, Campanella, 66, and Giovanna Blattermann, 60, had distributed hundreds of signs to parishioners of St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, aghast at the news that the Rev. Michael Salerno was removed as pastor because of an allegation that he sexually abused a teenage boy in Brooklyn, N.Y., more than 30 years ago.
To the congregants of Little Italy and beyond, the removal of the popular pastor - whose arrival 10 years ago is credited with revitalizing a church and neighborhood - bodes disaster.
Never. Not their Father Mike. Not the man with the thick Brooklyn accent always spotted on street corners with his signature cigar and baseball hat hollering hello, a man who had become such an institution in the neighborhood that even non-churchgoers know him and a local deli named a "Father Mike" sandwich after him.
"We do love and support him," said Campanella, who is president of the Little Italy Community Organization. "That's the feeling of the community. I'm very, very concerned for the future of my church and my community."
But others question such fierce support before the investigation is completed.
Salerno, 61, does not face criminal charges, but the allegation has been reported to authorities in New York. Though Salerno has not been defrocked, he can't celebrate Mass publicly or serve as a priest while the church investigates.
The man who alleged the abuse contacted his home diocese last week, reporting an incident he said took place at All Saints Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, where Salerno served as a brother from 1971 to 1978.
Salerno, who neither admitted nor denied that the abuse had taken place, is receiving counseling and is cooperating with the investigation, according to church officials.
Loud and down-to-earth, Salerno is a pastor whose 20-minute speed Masses are sprinkled with stories from his childhood and life.
Salerno is known for passing out meals and money to the homeless and elderly. He recruited parishioners to hand out food and clothes to the homeless at the Baltimore Rescue Mission. He gave Communion to the residents of the former public housing development just north of Little Italy. And he attracted new congregants to the church, from suburbanites and old-timers who had left the neighborhood, to converts and people of other ethnic groups.
"He was a great priest," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who grew up in Little Italy and returns to St. Leo's for Mass about once a month. "He arrived at St. Leo's at a time when we were fighting for survival, and he revitalized the church so that we were one of the most powerful parishes in the city."
D'Alesandro, like others who know Salerno, say they don't believe the allegation against him. Yesterday in Little Italy, a group of women gathered outside Campanella's house.
Many speculated that someone was after Salerno's success and the wealth that he has been able to amass at the church, which has grown from some 100 members 10 years ago to 800 registered members today.
Some residents went as far as saying that even if the allegation is true, Salerno's lifetime of doing good would earn him repentance in their book.
"We want him back," Blattermann said. "This community needs him. I don't think it's true, but if there is a remote possibility that it is, the good he has done far outweighs one alleged incident."
Elizabeth Ann Murphy, a victim of abuse by John Joseph Merzbacher, a former Catholic Community Middle School teacher in South Baltimore, said yesterday that such unequivocal support of Salerno before he is fully investigated is dangerous.
Merzbacher was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison for raping Murphy, who was 12 at the time of the abuse. He was accused of molesting many other children.
Murphy said the day after Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien was installed last month, he met with her and other survivors of child abuse in a series of private meetings.
"The outrage of the supporters ... has to be tempered for the protection of the children now. What if there is a child over in Little Italy now who is being abused? Do you really think they or their family would want to come forward in that climate?" Murphy asked.
But to Salerno's supporters, the absence of their pastor has shattered a community's faith.
"I'm very sad and disappointed that Father Mike won't be here to preside over my funeral," said Philomena Abruzzese, 80. "I'm very hurt."
Yesterday, Campanella was making her weekly pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jude, the patron of lost causes. She hopes Salerno's fate is not a lost cause, she said, but she'll light a candle for him.