The statue of the Virgin Mary, which stands outside the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Old York Road in the Pen Lucy neighborhood is restored.
Mary Claire Miller knew that the parish in which she’d attended school as a child had long faced difficult economic times, leaving one of North Baltimore’s historic churches in uncomfortably shaky condition.
Blessed Sacrament Church in Pen Lucy had had a leaky roof for months. Its windows needed sealing and painting. The congregation, while devoted, had shrunk to a fifth its former size, and the surrounding neighborhood had become less safe.
But when Miller drove last month past the old building on Old York Road and saw the statue of the Virgin Mary out front, she decided things had gone too far. The hands of the Blessed Mother, outstretched for generations in a gesture of welcome, were all but gone — either vandalized or worn away by the elements.
“Seeing that just came as a shock,” says Miller, 75, who grew up with five siblings in a house across the street in the 1950s and 1960s. “Without those hands, she seemed helpless out there. That’s not Mary. Something had to be done.”
Miller contacted her sister, Linda Sullivan, and helped set up an online petition to get Mary restored. It took three days to surpass the $4,200 they needed.
In the process, they galvanized a community they didn’t realize existed. More than 70 alumni of Blessed Sacrament School, an elementary and middle school that closed in 1972, donated up to $400 each.
There were dozens of notes of reminiscence and encouragement, from as far away as California, Florida and Maine.
Many shared a goal: uplifting a now-struggling parish that had shaped their lives for the better.
“These are people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s, who graduated when they were 12 or 13,” says Sullivan, 72, who lives in Denver. “We had no idea how strongly so many people felt about a school that closed nearly 50 years ago. It felt like God at work.”
The project won’t cure all the ills surrounding Blessed Sacrament. Rising crime rates and other urban challenges in Pen Lucy, a low-income neighborhood just east of Greenmount Avenue and south of East 43rd Street, have not helped attendance in an era when most churches report declines in membership.
But given the veneration Catholics reserve for the mother of Jesus, the initiative carries a symbolic weight. Mary represents a promise of redemption and salvation, so a restored statue out front could have a practical, as well as a spiritual effect, says Megan Godfrey, a neighbor and 30-year member of the parish, which draws about 60 Mass attendees a week.
“People might think, ’Oh, my goodness. It looks terrible on the outside, so maybe it’s not so nice on the inside,’” says Godfrey. “If it looks nice, you might visit, and if you visit, you’ll enjoy the service and see that it’s incredibly beautiful inside.”
Parish alumni say the spirit in and around the church has always been strong.
It was sometime around 1900 that Miller’s grandmother, an Irish immigrant named Clara Mecham Cain, moved from Harford County to what is now Pen Lucy. She bought a rambling house with a wraparound porch at Old York and East 42nd Street.
The place was a rural enclave at the time, so Cain regularly invited priests to say Mass in her living room. In 1911, the Archdiocese of Baltimore began building Blessed Sacrament Church. It opened 10 years later, and the Mary statue dates to this period. The complex included a convent, a rectory and, later, the school.
Over the next six decades, the mostly Catholic neighborhood’s interaction with Blessed Sacrament built an interconnected community of families. Many donors recalled the 1950s through the 1970s as a time and place of closeness, with rules and hard work, a combination that promoted both learning and fun.
Cain’s four children, who grew up nearby, included Mary Claire, who later married Bill Sullivan, an insurance broker. That couple’s six children, including “Little Mary Claire” Miller and Linda Sullivan, grew up on East 42nd surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins.
Miller, Sullivan and their friend, Kathleen Barker, a 1962 graduate who lives in California, remember the nuns — all School Sisters of Notre Dame — as demanding educators who dedicated their lives to children.
The sisters weren’t just disciplinarians, the women said. They provided comfort at stressful times and were perceived as members of an extended family. Barker recalls her parents stopping by on weekends to drive nuns on their errands.
Some of the sisters would sit on the second-floor balcony of the convent and watch over the children as they played in the Sullivans’ yard.
That closeness had a downside for Barker. She remembered the day she first kissed her boyfriend at Old York and East 42nd. By the time she made it home to nearby Ednor Gardens, her parents had been notified.
“I was grounded until the next week,” she said. “The nuns weren’t much different from all the mothers in the neighborhood. Everyone kept an eye on everyone else.”
Barker, a retired teacher and health care worker, was among the first to contribute. She donated $100.
“If the neighborhood is not prosperous, people don’t have a lot of money to give,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe this can be a small beginning to a much larger, broader renaissance.”
Bill Gentry, too, was eager to chip in. A 64-year-old Perry Hall resident, he’s one of 10 children who grew up in a five-bedroom house adjacent to the church on Springfield Avenue and attended the church and school.
Gentry’s father, James, now 94, graduated from Blessed Sacrament in 1940, much as his six siblings did. Eight of Bill’s siblings did the same between 1963 and 1971.
Gentry, who served as an altar boy, remembers a church that drew capacity crowds for Sunday Mass and dedicated teaching nuns who brooked no nonsense.
“More than anything, those strict nuns taught discipline and respect for one another,” says Gentry, a manager for Exelon. “They gave me a core that has stayed with me my whole life.”
Miller, a retired flight attendant who lives in Baltimore, and Sullivan, a former Verizon executive, say Blessed Sacrament did the same for them. That’s why they reached out to its pastor, the Rev. Joe Muth, to see if he wanted help in getting Mary’s hands restored.
Muth, it turned out, tried to get a similar project off the ground last year before more immediate needs arose.
This summer, he lent his name to the campaign, talked it up in church and connected the donors with a stonemason he knew.
“He just said, ’I love it,’ and got behind it all the way,” Miller says.
The statue, fashioned about a century ago from concrete, remains largely intact. But its cast metal hands were disfigured by exposure, vandalism or both, says Mike Shaulis, whose masonry and contracting company, Buildgood, is working on the restoration. His team began the job Friday.
The upper portion of the hands remains attached to the arms. But so many fingers are missing that it creates the appearance that the hands are gone. The church found some of the fingers that came off over the years, but others have to be remade. Donors may have to hire a metal fabricator to complete the work, something Miller hopes to accomplish in the next few weeks.
For Muth, the restoration will be the latest in a series of changes that affirm the parish’s healing power.
Marian House, a nonprofit organization that supports women and children in need of housing, bought the school, rectory and convent four years ago. It turned them into The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building at Independence Place, a $6.1 million, 22-apartment community, in 2017.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
Blessed Sacrament’s largely Black congregation skews older, Muth says, with many members in their 70s or 80s. A few are immigrants from Africa. Nearly all grew up in Pen Lucy or live nearby, and the church remains a positive force in the neighborhood.
Membersoperate a soup kitchen every Wednesday, collect and give away clothes at a church store, and arrange for free blood pressure screenings, picnics and school supply giveaways.
“It’s a small community, but it has a great devotion to Blessed Sacrament. They love it. They see it as a haven,” says Muth, who has led the congregation since 2012.
Closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the church reopened last month with a range of precautions in place.
To Godfrey, the timing of the Mary campaign couldn’t be better.