St. Peter the Apostle Church, a historic Catholic church and… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
A renowned city architect designed St. Peter the Apostle Church 170 years ago. Irish laborers dug the foundation by hand, donating their labor to build it. And its early parishioners spared no expense in adorning their house of worship. They installed an elaborate white marble altar, with a life-size statue of the church's patron saint towering over it, and placed intricately carved angels at the sides of the tabernacle.
Now those angels are gone, donated to All Saints parish in Liberty Heights.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is preparing to sell the church and its adjacent buildings to a nearby non-Catholic congregation. St. Peter's, whose congregation was consolidated with two other parishes amid declining attendance, will soon be home to Carter Memorial Church of God in Christ, said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Though the exterior of the building is protected by local and national historic preservation laws, some worry that the changes inside will destroy the character of St. Peter, the second-oldest Catholic church in Baltimore and the place where Babe Ruth was baptized.
"They are stripping the inside of the church," said Thomas Ward, a retired judge and former city councilman who led efforts to place the church on the city's list of historic places. "I can't believe this is happening to one of the city's oldest and most historic churches."
Pedestals are already devoid of sculptures. The marble baptismal font and even the pews are for sale. Over the decades, many parishioners memorialized family members with donations of statuary and stained-glass windows. The windows will stay, but those other items must go.
A statue of the Virgin Mary has been removed from its traditional place on the side altar. It stands in the foyer, ready for removal. Its fingers have broken off and lie at its feet.
"Something should be done to stop this wholesale scavenging," said Mary Ellen Hayward, an architectural historian who has published several books on Baltimore. "This is a true city landmark. It is equally important to preserve its interior."
Representatives from Carter Memorial, now on West Fayette Street, did not return calls for comment, and Caine would not discuss the sale price. The Catholic artifacts are not part of that congregation's rituals, so the statues and other items will be given or sold to other parishes.
Caine said it was important to the archdiocese that the building remain in the possession of a Christian church. The proceeds from the sale of the items will be given to the Transfiguration Catholic Community, which comprises the three parishes that combined when St. Peter's closed in 2004, he said.
The archdiocese has declined to sell some of its vacant school buildings to city charter schools, which it sees as competition for the church's education program, which serves many non-Catholic students. That's not an issue with the St. Peter's building, Caine said, noting that the Catholic population has declined in the neighborhood.
"We're just pleased it was able to be used as a church," he said. "If it can't continue as a Catholic church, we're happy it can continue to service the faith community."
St. Peter's was designed by Robert Carey Long Jr. and built in the Greek revival style with massive pillars at its entry. It grew rapidly after its founding in 1844, adding schools, a rectory and a convent on the property, which occupies a city block at Poppleton and Hollins streets. The first pastor, who served the parish for 56 years, is memorialized on a marble plaque that will remain with the new owners.
"With the exception of statues, relics and such, which will be relocated to other Catholic sites, the archdiocese has no plans to alter the interior of the church," Caine said.
As at many city churches, attendance and revenues declined at St. Peter's, and its schools have long since closed. The church is shuttered except for the occasional wedding, funeral or celebration tied to the nearby Irish Shrine, a museum to railroad workers. The Transfiguration Community, formed nearly eight years ago, worships at the former St. Jerome's Church on Scott Street.
The lack of use and the cost of annual upkeep have threatened the survival of St. Peter's, which stands on the fringes of the University of Maryland biotech park, a project that is well under way.
A new owner cannot alter the exterior of the building, which not only has the city's preservation designation but also has been protected from encroachment by surrounding development since the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
But the interior and the artifacts are threatened, Ward said.
"We have won the battle to protect the outside of this historic church, but we can't protect the inside," he said. "The archdiocese is selling everything off. This is all about money, strictly money."
St. Peter's is not a typical parish church, Hayward said.