Church bell tower repairs signify change in Oliver neighborhood

Earthquake in 2011 caused $200,000 in damage at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church

  • This is the bell tower, covered in scaffolding, at St. Francis of Xavier Catholic Church in the Oliver neighborhood of east Baltimore. It is undergoing a renovation for the congregation's 150th anniversary.
This is the bell tower, covered in scaffolding, at St. Francis… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
April 05, 2013|Jacques Kelly

A few weeks ago, I spent a few quiet minutes in Green Mount Cemetery, where its higher ground offers unexpected views of Baltimore. As I looked to the southeast, something curious caught my eye.

What was going on in the nearby Oliver neighborhood? What was that thing attached to the mighty bell tower of St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church? This parish — the oldest African-American Roman Catholic congregation in the United States officially founded for people of color — has just begun to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Could the parish have timed a renovation to this birthday?

My curiosity led me to call the rectory and make an appointment. Soon, I was seated with the pastor, the Rev. James McLinden, a member of the Josephite Order. He offered an unexpected answer.

After the earthquake of August 2011, the Archdiocese of Baltimore brought in consultants to study possible damage to its churches. There were initial news accounts of the damage to St. Patrick's Church on South Broadway; later, damage was found at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street. But others churches also had cracks and trouble.

St. Francis Xavier, at Caroline and Oliver streets, took a $200,000 hit. Its 1904 tower, a slender and stately landmark, was found to have been weakened. It is now undergoing repairs; the work should be completed this spring.

Bill Hayes, the president of the construction firm handling the repairs, explained that the bell tower, a lofty four-sided design, is topped with a cone-shaped cap. This cap was covered in tiles that the earthquake loosened and structurally compromised; some tiles fell to the sidewalk and some to a lower slate roof. The tower, built of Port Deposit granite, Cleveland sandstone and limestone, also sustained damage.

"The stone itself did not fall but some of the mortar joints failed," Hayes said.

An account of the tower in The Baltimore Sun in May 1904 said it was 170 feet high. The contractor said its height was considerably greater when the measuring is computed to the very top of the cap. The tiles will be replaced by a standing seam copper cap.

The church, named St. Paul's when it was built, was designed by Thomas C. Kennedy, an architect who also built a small neighborhood in Mount Washington known as The Terraces. The church was constructed by builder John Stack, who must have made a nice living building some of Baltimore's landmark towers. Stack also built the better-known Roland Park Water Tower. He got his name on a bronze construction plaque for that job. For his work on this East Baltimore church, he only got a mention in this newspaper.

I've always thought of St. Francis Xavier as the unofficial cathedral of the Oliver neighborhood. This congregation has strong roots here, although some of its members live as far away as Howard and Baltimore counties. It is the home parish of City Councilman Carl Stokes. Del. Nina Harper, successor of Hattie Harrison, is also a member. And let us not forget former Mayor Clarence Du Burns.

McLinden told me one of his first assignments here nearly 10 years ago was to administer the last rites to the former mayor, who lived in the parish.

As I sat in the rectory dining room and chatted with McLinden, I heard hammering and construction noise. I asked if this were related to his job. He said no, but that the Oliver neighborhood is on the move. He pulled back the blind and showed me the backs of buildings on Bond Street now undergoing a thorough rehab aimed at putting families back in once-vacant homes.

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