The wooden statue of St. Michael, more than 10 feet tall, awaits… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The closing of an old city church is an emotional event. The final Masses were held at St. Michael Roman Catholic Church at Wolfe and Lombard streets in late July. Then, last week, the auctioneer arrived and sold off much of the contents of the Butchers Hill church established in 1845. It was the church where my great-grandparents were married before moving to their Aisquith Street home.
Blessedly, I did not know about the recent auction. I have observed these grim proceedings in the past and had the same response as Elizabeth Disney, who wrote this to me: "Being present at the sale was like watching the decline and fall of an empire. To be honest, I felt a bit like a looter in the sack of ancient Rome as I lugged away a gorgeous antique cabinet humidor end table (for which I paid all of $65) which presumably had previously held the cigars of the good fathers."
St. Michael's, which stands on a high East Baltimore ridge and is visible for miles because of its stout, copper-clad steeple, was an enormous parish with membership in the thousands. "I saw one church program from 1981 at the auction which listed 10 priests and brothers in residence at that time in the monastery-like rectory complex, which was clearly large enough to have held far more in its heyday," Ms. Disney wrote, adding that she toured a school and an enormous theater attached to the church. "They were selling everything down to the bare boards — every last Bible, bingo wheel, clerical collar, drinking glass from the rectory, and brass altar vase."
She felt this grand and sacred spot needed its story told. I immediately thought of the huge main aisle, the resonant bronze bells, the massive wooden statue of its namesake, St. Michael. There is the ancient wall at Lombard and Wolfe streets that enclosed the priests' garden with its boxwood, roses and hydrangeas. In it is another statue, that of St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order, which owns the property and ministered there for all those decades. I also thought of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught its schools, including the commercial school, where generations of Baltimore secretaries learned their office skills — and graduated to good jobs.
I thought of the summer carnivals when the bare-bulb electric light strings came out. So did the hot grease caldrons for the fried dough and crab cakes. And the spinning wheels of chance (a quarter a throw) whirled nonstop for a handful of days in June and July. These urban parish fiestas spilled out over the street.
The old summertime festivals reflected a neighborhood that sits south and east of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Once a predominantly German parish (it started with a school in 1845 and the initial church followed seven years later), St. Michael's served Germany families, but add to that Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovak and African-American members, plus a large Hispanic contingent, including some from the Caribbean, Mexico and Argentina.
In the 1990s, I watched crab cakes sold alongside the tacos stuffed with chicken and beans. I also observed Brother Bosco, a member of the Redemptorist Order, buzzing around the carnival, making sure the place was as clean as your grandmother's front parlor. In a prophetic way, he told me, "There's a lot to keep up here." The massive parish complex includes a huge 1859 church, a rectory, hall and sizable theater and parish schools. An article in The Catholic Review called the closing church "a victim of excessive expenses associated with maintaining the parish campus."
Now I ask, what is going to happen to the parish's namesake statue? On its 1873 dedication day, The Sun described how "St. Michael, the archangel, [stands] with his sword drawn and his foot on the head of the archfiend."