Book is closing on historic parish

This was the last Christmas Mass at St. Peter the Apostle

December 26, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

Some leaned on their canes. Others leaned on each other. One by one, the parishioners of St. Peter the Apostle hobbled up the concrete steps of the graceful Grecian-style church to bid goodbye to 165 years of history.

Yesterday's was the last Christmas Mass at the church at Hollins and Poppleton streets in West Baltimore. By February, the parish will merge with two others in the area. Though the building will still be used for the occasional wedding and funeral, it will no longer hold regular worship services.

And so, even as the 40 or so mostly older worshipers opened their hymnals to sing "Joy to the World," there was an unmistakable sadness in the air. Memories flooded back of kindly priests, saintly nuns and a ministry that always reached out to help the poorest of the poor.

"It's really hard to see this church close down because even today we see people in this neighborhood coming in, looking for help," said John Howe, a retired Baltimore police officer who grew up attending St. Peter's. "We don't feel too good about that. We've spent our entire lives here."

Founded in 1842 to serve Irish railroad workers for the nearby B&O lines, St. Peter's was called "the Mother of the West" because it was the first church in the city to be built west of the Basilica of the Assumption. For a long time, according to the church's former pastor, the Rev. Michael Roach, St. Peter's was the last Roman Catholic church going west until Ellicott City.

The parish's population changed with the neighborhood. In the 1890s, Sicilians began moving in, followed by Lithuanians. By World War II, many newcomers to the neighborhood were from West Virginia and other poor Appalachian states. In the 50 years since, as more African-Americans moved into the neighborhood, the congregation reflected that change, too. Today, membership includes several Vietnamese and Hispanic families.

One of the church's most famous members was Mary Avara longtime head of the Maryland State Board of Film Censors, who decided how much nudity and profanity was too much for the movie-going public. She died in 2000 but is still missed - yesterday, a parishioner lamented all of the "filthy things" allowed in films since the end of her reign.

Roach, who was pastor from 1981 to 1995 and the last of the clergy to live in the church's rectory, said working at St. Peter's was one of the highlights of his life.

"At Christmas, especially, people would just knock on your door and give you money. It was the most amazing place I've ever been," said Roach, who was reassigned to a Carroll County parish in 1995. "It was a tremendous pleasure to be there. Oh, my God, I do miss it."

Roach remembers a woman who came all the way from Sparrows Point each Christmas to drop off 10 baskets filled with food and presents; she did it, she told him, because she never forgot how a St. Peter's priest gave her family a basket when they were too poor to afford one.

One Christmas, when it was raining and cold during Midnight Mass, a group of prostitutes came in for shelter. During the Kiss of Peace, Roach remembers, one of them planted one on the church's senior pastor. The elder pastor just smiled, Roach said.

But there were sad stories, too. Roach buried many church members who died of AIDS; he knew many people in the neighborhood who were addicted to drugs. And though the church typically had a high rate of baptisms, he said, more than 80 percent of the children came from single-parent families.

Over the years, as parishioners moved out to Catonsville and farther west to Howard County, the membership of St. Peter's dwindled. Like many Catholic parishes in the city that are based in old buildings, it struggled to keep up with staggering utility bills while providing services to the community.

In 2004, St. Peter's joined with St. Martin's and St. Jerome's to form the Transfiguration Catholic Community; they have been holding one service in each church building every weekend. In September, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that the congregations would consolidate and worship at St. Jerome's - which is the largest church and is accessible to the disabled.

"The community decided with the pastor that if they're going to worship as a community, probably the best way to start is with combined services," said Bishop Denis J. Madden, urban vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"It's not such an easy thing for people who have worshiped in their own particular churches to come together into one community, to do things in a church that might not be the one they were baptized in."

That the parishioners knew it was coming has not made it any easier.

"It breaks my heart," said longtime member Jenny Stallings, a retired machine operator. "I know if my mom was living here today, oh my goodness. ... They were good to me, St. Peter's was, and to my children."

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