Rev. Jo Farley of Christ Institution Church talks about the history of the building, which opened in 1895 and became a quirky combination of church, hospital and medical school. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
A dank cold emanates through the darkened sanctuary of Christ Institution Baptist Church in East Baltimore. The ceiling lies on the floor, a pew atop a wooden piano. Shoes and snack wrappers are strewn around, remnants from vagrants who sometimes break in to spend the night.
Once upon a time in Baltimore, this was where the healing happened.
In the early 1900s, black and white, young and old, anyone who was sick or ailing crowded into this auditorium on Ensor Street on Sunday nights, eager to be cured by the church’s founder, Dr. George Kennard.
“He used to have people lined around the block almost,” said the Rev. Jo Farley, the current pastor.
In 1929, when Kennard died, 3,000 people of all races and religions came to the church to pay their respects to a man who, according to The Baltimore Afro-American, “had one of the most colorful careers of any citizen in Baltimore.”
Today, the deteriorating church building at Ensor and Monument streets is all but abandoned — and on the market. Restoration is beyond feasible, Farley said, but she hopes its sale will help her sustain the parish and Kennard’s legacy.
The place opened in 1895 and became a quirky combination of church, hospital and medical school.
In 1902, The Afro called it “a peculiar Baltimore institution that is doing good,” a “Mecca for the physically and spiritually sick.”
Along with West Baltimore’s Provident Hospital, which opened in 1894, Christ Institution was one of the few places where blacks could receive medical care in Baltimore at that time.
Kennard’s credentials are unclear. An African-American, he studied medicine under two white doctors, The Afro reported. It also said the institute counted blacks and whites among its staff and students — a rare blending then.
Just as shocking to many in 1909: Kennard married a white nurse who worked with him in the hospital, though marriage between whites and blacks was illegal in Maryland at the time.
The Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the union reflected the era: “Negro ‘Doctor’ Says Nurse Will Become His Wife.”
In the eyes of Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, Kennard’s willingness to minister to all races made him a man ahead of his time. The museum featured Kennard’s legacy in a 2012-2013 exhibition, “The Art of Storytelling.”
She said that when discussing racism of the past, people often accept “that was the way it was back then.” She and the museum work to celebrate those who defied such social norms.
“I’m always amazed by the people who knew better. People who followed their heart,” Hoffberger said.
A listing from a 1918 directory of black businesses states that Kennard’s hospital featured four pharmacists and an operating room, and that “everything is perfectly sanitary.” The cost was $1 per day and up.
The Afro praised Kennard for his work removing difficult tumors. He performed surgery in an upstairs room of the church, using a skylight window for light, Farley said.
Aside from his medicine, Kennard was known for his prophetic visions and faith healings. Accounts in The Afro said he professed to cure convulsions with his touch and blindness with a word.
He also reportedly could tell people where they’d left a $5 bill they’d lost, or whether they should get married.
“He was just a well-known person for healing and taking care of people,” Farley said.
His practices were not without controversy. According to an 1890 article in The Medical Visitor, an industry publication of the era, Kennard had been investigated by the Health Department of Baltimore after a patient died. The article noted that he practiced homeopathic medicine and quoted Kennard as saying, “I am directed by the voice of God.”
However, Kennard opened Christ Institution and continued his medical practice until at least 1910, when, along with most other black-run medical schools in the United States, it was shut down in the aftermath of the Flexner Report, a study that aimed to raise the nation’s hospital standards with Johns Hopkins as a model.
Newspaper accounts show that Kennard’s public healings continued for nearly two decades after his hospital and medical school ceased operations.
Hoffberger said the fact that years later, thousands of people of many races and ethnicities came to his funeral speaks to the impact Kennard had on the city.
“It’s really a testament that what they saw here was a person who was really a light in the community,” she said.
The congregation of the Christ Institution is now a tiny fraction of what it was a century ago. With just 10 members, it can’t afford the nearly $2 million in repairs needed to maintain the three-story building in Oldtown.
Upstairs, the floors of the old medical facility sag so badly that they have fallen away from the wall. A few empty medicine bottles remain in a box on the floor. Since last year, church officials have boarded up the building and started meeting in one another’s homes.
“Sometimes I have to call to find out where we’re having church,” Farley said.
On a recent visit to the old church, she lifted the lid on a wooden chest to reveal a stack of ancient hymnals and some early medical books, where they’ve been since soon after she took over in 2006. She received it from the church’s previous minister, and once had dreams of restoring it.
“It hurts to give up the building,” she said.
The asking price for the structure is $275,000.
“It’s a cool building,” said Jim Chivers, a real estate agent with Gold and Co., which is managing the sale.
The next owner most likely will tear it down, said the pastor. “In the shape it’s in,” she said, “it’s probably best to tear it down.”
She hopes proceeds from the sale can be used for a new church. She has her eye on a white building nearby. It looks just like the Christ Institution — but smaller.
Farley believes Kennard’s legacy deserves to be remembered — and she says the healings have continued to the present day.
In 2014, after parishioner Darlene Blackwell was diagnosed with throat cancer and unable to speak, “We prayed for her,” Farley said. “We laid hands on her.”
“The next thing I knew, I was talking,” said Blackwell, 54, her voice raspy but audible.
She said she began to sing the hymn “Going Up Yonder.”