Colin Miller has brainstormed for years with fellow Catholics about how their denomination might be revitalized in Baltimore, a city with deep roots in Catholicism but where interest in the church has plunged in recent years. He was sure Archdiocese of Baltimore officials were doing the same.
And the 31-year-old urban missionary was encouraged to receive the eye-opening email that landed in his inbox early Thursday morning.
Written by Archbishop William E. Lori, it announced the launch of “Seek the City to Come,” a multiyear initiative in which archdiocesan leaders will reassess, re-imagine and in all likelihood start revamping the church’s most fundamental operations in the city.
Miller immediately saw the plan would raise questions — what, for instance, would end up happening to the all church buildings Catholics consider sacred? — but the fact that he saw the archdiocese addressing its issues head-on, and inviting so many at all levels of the church to participate in the decisions to be made, convinced him the initiative “has the potential to re-energize a lot of things” in Catholic Baltimore.
“It reminded me of a recent speaker at the Basilica who talked about trying to recapture the imaginative capacity of Catholics,” he said moments after a noon Mass at the nation’s first Cathedral on Thursday. “I think this will be exciting.“
Miller was not the only local Catholic to see both the possibilities of and the questions inherent in the sweeping plan.
As word of Seek the City to Come spread across the region, the men and women who sit in the pews expressed emotions ranging from excited optimism to we’ve-seen-this-before skepticism, sometimes practically at the same time.
A commenter on the archdiocese’s Facebook page encouraged Lori and others to be “fearless and not cowardly” as they move forward. Another said she expected the process to be “another way for Lori to sell off land and close parishes.”
Outside social media, ordinary Catholics seemed to accept that some form of thoroughgoing change is needed — only about 4,500 people had been using the 25,000 open seats in city pews before early 2020, after all, and the pandemic cut that number in half — but that whatever form it takes, it’s going to involve pain.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s facing reality,” said David Wainwright, 61, a Baltimore native and longtime member at historic St. Bernardine Catholic Church in Edmondson. “It’s just the way things are now. You just have to adapt and adjust and let God do the rest.”
The feelings seemed strongest at some of Baltimore’s smaller parishes — including some, like the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, that already have made concessions to the broader decline in commitment to the Catholic faith and religion in general in the city and beyond.
Andrew Smith is a member of a family that has belonged to the 162-year-old Holy Cross parish in Federal Hill since the 1860s. His generation is the fifth to have had marriages there. But he said it’s time to take a realistic look at the current situation.
It was 19 years ago that the archdiocese combined Smith’s church with two nearby historic parishes, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Riverside and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Locust Point, to create a single new one, the Catholic Community of South Baltimore.
Smith said he has enjoyed the distinct feel of each of the parish’s church buildings but that it’s impossible not to notice how unwieldy things have become.
The parish spends at least $100,000 per year maintaining those buildings and nine others, all but one built before 1872, diverting time and resources from its core mission of spreading the Gospel in a rapidly changing part of the city.
“These buildings are so much a part of the identity of these neighborhoods, and the people in the parish have a real fighting spirit about keeping things up, but there’s only so much you can do with an older building, no matter how much you love it,” Smith said. “We’ve all seen the writing on the wall.”
About 5 miles to the west, parishioners at St. Bernardine are grappling with similar emotions. The 94-year-old church is no stranger to change.
It was three years ago, Lendora Cleveland said, that the church’s pastor, the Rev. Monsignor Richard Bozzelli, began taking a hard look at developments in the neighborhood, where crime and unemployment were growing more rampant, the younger people moving in were showing less and less interest in church, and pastors, in general, were brainstorming ways of getting more bodies in the pews.
Wainwright, an audio professional with Maryland Public Television, helped persuade Bozzelli to invest in livestreaming, an advance in technological capabilities that not only brought church services to more people in the neighborhood, but also began attracting viewers across the country and around the world.
When the pandemic hit, St. Bernardine already was positioned to keep connecting with the community, said Cleveland, a retired educator and lifelong parish member. The church’s willingness to innovate “saved” it, she said.
And while in-person attendance has in fact dropped from an average of 400 to only 170 per week since 2020 at the 94-year-old parish, online services are attracting more than 600 viewers, adding up to the biggest regular audience the church has reached in years.
To Cleveland, 64, such openness to change could serve as a model for the Seek the City to Come initiative, which in her view seems like a citywide version of her parish’s efforts, and she sees that as a hopeful sign. But that doesn’t mean accepting whatever changes are in store will be easy.
She concedes that one possibility is seeing St. Bernardine combined with such nearby parishes as St. William of York or St. Edward’s — or terminated altogether.
Cleveland said she agrees with Bozzelli that it might be more efficient, in the long run, for Baltimore Catholics to focus more on how to support the church on a citywide basis and less on their neighborhood parish, but she admits it would be “a tough pill to swallow” for her and her friends to have to worship anywhere else.
Those other parishes would be welcome to merge with St. Bernardine, she said with a laugh, but she’s not so sure about merging with them.
“Our parish is our home,” she said. “It’s where we’re comfortable, where we know so many people and have so many memories. If we don’t have a choice, I guess most people here would find another place to go worship. But I don’t think that’s something that would be welcome.”
Regine LaForest Sharif has been working for years to bring about just such changes. And while LaForest Sharif, a member of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in East Baltimore, said changes always bring discomfort, she believes hard work, a listening ear and a prayerful attitude can turn them into opportunity.
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It was in 2017 that the archdiocese merged St. Wenceslaus and two nearby historic African American churches, St. Ann’s and St. Francis Xavier, into a single pastorate as part of a consolidation plan. Each kept its own governance structure in place, but representatives met on a regular basis, proposing ideas, addressing differences, building relationships and “getting to know one another.”
It was not until last year that the parish pastor, the Rev. Xavier Edet, decided it was time to create a single parish council, and LaForest Sharif said the background work paid off, as the churches have come together for a range of joyous, well-attended events. They’ve included a spiritual retreat at which members of the once-distinct parishes explored the history of Black Catholic churches in the city and a 150th anniversary gala for St. Wenceslaus late last month that drew more than 300 people.
“With so much change happening in the world, in the Catholic faith and in the archdiocese, it’s important for us not to be fearful,” she said. “But this is not about us. It’s about what God wants for us and for our communities. And these changes have been really, really powerful.”
LaForest said she accepts that the archdiocese has made no decisions, that all possibilities are on the table, and that organizers will make no changes until they hear parishioners out in a year’s worth of listening sessions.
Back at the Basilica, others emerging from Thursday’s Mass agreed. Parishioner Ana Farias, who had read Lori’s message that morning, said that while it raised questions, it was “an encouraging surprise,” in large part because the archdiocese seems so committed to taking its time and ensuring that everyone in the area can be heard and involved.
Catholics believe a parish literally has a soul, Farias said, which makes the possibility of losing even one deeply troubling. But it’s possible the larger outcome can be something better than most can imagine now.
“Let’s look at this as a rallying cry to move forward,” she said.