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Before devastating fire, the gilded cross of the former Saint James the Less stood watch over East Baltimore for 135 years

Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze at the the Urban Bible Fellowship Church, formerly St. James the Less Catholic Church.
Baltimore firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze at the the Urban Bible Fellowship Church, formerly St. James the Less Catholic Church.(Barbara Haddock Taylor/AP)

When lightning struck the venerable steeple of the former Saint James the Less Catholic Church this past Saturday morning, East Baltimore lost one of its towering landmarks. Baltimore Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor covered the resulting fire and captured the fall of this once-familiar sight at Aisquith and Eager streets.

Until it closed in 1986, St. James the Less was home to masses and marriages, baptisms and funerals, often listed in cherished family Bibles. Many residents of Harford and eastern Baltimore counties had great-grandparents who were members of St. James.

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Founded in 1833, it initially served congregants from Ireland and Germany. The School Sisters of Notre Dame founded their Institute of Notre Dame next door, creating a city block of church and school. The girls’ high school remains active and counts as its graduates House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The neighborhood grew, and church authorities decided to designate Saint James the German congregation and St. John the Evangelist, at Valley and Eager streets, the Irish house of worship.

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Saint James prospered. Among its prominent members were brewers George Brehm and Thomas Beck and pharmaceuticals maker Louis Dohme. The congregation also included talented seamstresses who made Baltimore Album quilts in the 1850s. A new church, embellished by marble work by sculptor Joseph Didusch, was constructed between 1865 and 1867 — while its mighty steeple had to wait another 20 years.

The steeple the lightning targeted was finally completed and the cross was raised in an elaborate ceremony on Sept. 13, 1885.

The Sun covered the dedication of the cross, designed by George A. Frederick, the architect of the church. Frederick gave Baltimore its City Hall and numerous pavilions and structures in Druid Hill Park during a long career.

The cross was made by the Pigtown firm of Bartlett and Hayward, known for its cast-iron work. The cross had a wood inner frame that Bartlett and Hayward covered in copper.

On dedication day, the cross was decorated with fresh flowers “by the young ladies of the parish," The Sun reported. It was carried along Somerset Street by “the oldest members of the parish.”

The cross (The Sun said it was 10 feet high with a 5-foot cross arm) was first blessed at the foot of the high marble altar. It was then carried to the corner of Asquith and Eager streets and lifted on a temporary elevator inside a scaffold built for the construction of the church spire.

The scaffold was decorated in flags for the occasion. Spectators filled the surrounding streets and vied for vantage points, The Sun reported. Many stood on rooftops.

A building crew hoisted it to the pinnacle using a block and tackle.

The Sun described the gilt cross a standing “265 feet from the sidewalk ... visible from almost every point in Northeast Baltimore.”

A while later all the bronze McShane Foundry bells were installed and rang out for a high Mass. The largest bell weighed 5,000 pounds.

By the 1980s, the church’s days as a flourishing congregation were over. The final Mass at St. James, now joined with its neighbor a few blocks away, St. John the Evangelist, was offered March 17, 1986. For a while there was a proposal to convert the building into apartments, but it became the Urban Bible Fellowship Church.

The Redemptorist Fathers, who staffed St. James, had its majestic Josef Mayer stained-glass windows removed and reinstalled at Our Lady of Fatima parish in the Bayview section of East Baltimore. The original August Pomplitz organ was also disassembled and moved to a Norristown, Pennsylvania, congregation.

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Its mighty bronze bells, named for the evangelists, also found a new home. They continue to sound the hours at Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Charles and Saratoga streets.

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