Leakin Park chapel preservation effort recalls the philanthropy of its owner

Circa 1859 Leakin Park chapel recalls the philanthropy of its owner

A campaign is underway to preserve a little-known and seldom-seen Baltimore landmark that's tucked inside Leakin Park.

It's one of the city's sad ironies that this stream valley park has acquired a harsh reputation as a place where police sometimes discover corpses. Yet Leakin contains an amazing campus of preserved 19th-century estate buildings and a grand mansion known as Orianda House.

I've been visiting the park and its leafy Gwynns Falls Trail for decades. On a recent trip, I encountered a resplendent Orianda, the stone mansion constructed by industrialist and railroad builder Thomas Winans as a summer retreat from his city residence at Fremont Avenue and Baltimore Street.

Orianda is a big house, with rooms that now serve as living quarters for Outward Bound counselors, and enough parlors and porches for weddings and other social events. It's a solid beauty that overlooks Gwynn Falls Valley.

The mansion is at the end of a driveway off Windsor Mill Road, but the first structure along that road is equally impressive — a circa-1859 carpenter-style Gothic Revival chapel, miraculously preserved with original pews, altar and tabernacle.

This is obviously a cherished survivor; its plain and chaste interior speaks of a sacred space.

In this chapel we encounter the legacy of the French-born Celeste Revillon Winans, wife of Thomas Winans.

"She was an abolitionist and an early advocate of women's rights," said Baltimore historian Paul H. Belz. "She had the chapel constructed for the Roman Catholic farmworkers, many of whom had recently emigrated from Ireland and England. She died in 1861 and was eulogized with full honors at the Baltimore Basilica on Cathedral Street."

Belz believes Celeste Winans was one of the first — and maybe the first — woman of her generation to be accorded a prominent obituary in Baltimore newspapers. The Baltimore American wrote at the time of her death: "She was one of the best friends of the suffering poor among us."

Belz said Celeste Winans is an overlooked Baltimore philanthropist who practiced charity at a "soup house" she established near her city home at Alexandroffsky, now the site of the University of Maryland BioPark on West Baltimore Street. After her death, the soup house became a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

The chapel bears a metal plaque honoring Celeste Winans: "In memory of her commitment to feeding the poor."

Some 30 years ago, Mary Lou Wolf, a neighborhood activist from nearby Dickeyville, became an ardent chapel advocate. She founded the Baltimore Herb Festival to promote the park and save the then-withering chapel.

Her preservation effort had an inauspicious start. Just as it was taking root, lightning during a spring thunderstorm struck the chapel and killed Carl Ruskin, a city planner attending the Herb Festival.

"Here was Mary Lou Wolf — she had just begun the effort. A man lost his life at the first festival," said Jo Orser, chair of the Committee for the Preservation of Winans Chapel in Leakin Park. "The chapel was damaged. Its roof burned."

Yet behind Wolf's passion, the effort has pressed ahead, bolstered by volunteers and others who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Leakin Park and support the park and its structures. Many of them work weekly in the park to preserve its natural beauty.

Wolf died in 1998, but over the years, Herb Festival volunteers have continued to work with the city's Department of Recreation and Parks on the chapel's periodic repairs, said Orser, who lives in the Hunting Ridge neighborhood.

The supporters provided funds for a $30,000 chapel roof in 2009. Now they are raising money for preservation of the chapel's wooden exterior, which has become weather-beaten and bleached.

"Its little Gothic curlicues and fallen cross need attention," Orser said. "It is an architectural gem."

The next event to promote the chapel project will be the annual Orianda Holiday Open House, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 12 at the park. Stephen Walk, the great-grandson of Thomas and Celeste Winans, will speak about his great-grandfather's building of the first train line between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Orser hopes the open house and talk will inspire others to join the cause of preserving the chapel.

"It's the sprit of the volunteers that continues to keep the chapel standing," she said.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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