Monsignor Damien George Nalepa, the pastor of a West Baltimore Roman Catholic parish who led campaigns to take guns out of his neighborhood, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday. He was 70.
Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said that when Monsignor Nalepa failed to appear for his regular Saturday evening Mass at St. Gregory the Great, church workers called the police. He said they found him slumped over in a chair in his bedroom. "Though the cause of death is unknown at this time, there was no evidence of foul play," Mr. Caine said.
Members of the parish said he was called Father Damien after arriving at the church at Baker and Gilmor streets in 1978. He was named pastor in 1981 and held the post at his death.
"Monsignor Nalepa's death is a great shock and a tremendous loss, not only for our local Church but also for the City of Baltimore, which he served so faithfully and so selflessly," said Archbishop William E. Lori in a statement. "In his more than 40 years of service in Baltimore, Monsignor Nalepa improved the lives of countless individuals and did so with great humility, faithfulness and love."
Born in Pittsburgh, he was the son of Edward Nalepa and the former Mary Miscik. He attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and St. Fidelis College in Herman, Pa. In 1965, he began pursuing a religious vocation and professed vows to the Capuchin Order at the old St. Conrad Friary near Annapolis.
He completed his seminary studies at Northeast Washington's Capuchin College and earned a master's degree in religious education, being ordained to the priesthood in 1970. In 1974, he earned a degree in urban planning at Morgan State University. He also studied criminal justice.
While a member of the Capuchin Order, he came to Baltimore and served in urban parishes: St. Martin's on Fulton Avenue, beginning in 1971, and later at St. Ann's, at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street. In 1978, he began his long association with St. Gregory the Great in West Baltimore.
In 1981, he became a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese. Friends said he felt a strong kinship with the residents of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
"He was not a preachy-type person," said a close friend, Bishop Denis J. Madden. "He would never say anything like, 'I want to live with the poor.' Deep in his heart he loved West Baltimore. He was the kind of person who just led a modest life. He would give you the shirt off his back."
Bishop Madden said his colleague "liked to shop" and enjoyed travel, especially when he accompanied parishioners on a trip to the Virgin Islands.
"Physically, he was a small guy but in reality, he was a giant," said Monsignor Edward Miller, pastor of St. Bernardine's Church on Edmondson Avenue. "He had a tremendous sense of the role of the mission of the church in the city. His life was very much about service."
He sought better housing in the neighborhood, filled with many vacant residences. He met former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, when they visited Sandtown as part of a Habitat for Humanity venture. He also conferred with former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros in 1993 on a tour of the old Lexington Terrace public housing high rise, which was later demolished.
Mr. Caine, the Archdiocese spokesman, said Monsignor Nalepa conducted anti-violence vigils and confronted suspected drug dealers on street corners.
In 2007, Monsignor Nalepa reacted to growing violence in West Baltimore by offering a "no questions asked" gun buy-back, one of several he promoted.
"It's at a point where these are drastic times, and we need drastic measures," he said in a Baltimore Sun story. "We can't just have people talking for talk's sake, we need some action. The community is demanding it."
That day he collected 15 rifles and handguns, many passed down within families. He called the collection effort "one small way to deal with the problem."
He also organized food basket donations each Christmas.
He served as a prison chaplain and helped those who were released get jobs. He also encouraged them to contact their families and re-establish ties.
He was named a monsignor in 2006. He also held the ecclesiastical post of Vicar Forane for the Harbor West Region. He was a board member of the Welfare Rights Organization and the St. James Community Services Ventures.
He was chairperson of the Fulton House Work Release Program and served on the Archdiocese's Urban Commission.
Archbishop Lori will preside at an 11 a.m. Mass of Christian burial Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption, 401 Cathedral St.
Survivors include two brothers, Kenneth Nalepa of Pittsburgh and the Rev. Richard Nalepa of Jamaica, N.Y.; and a sister, Nancy Herring of Pittsburgh.