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Blown-over beacon to shine again to the bay from St. Mary Star of the Sea cross in Baltimore

The cross on top of St Mary Star of the Sea Church will be restored with its beacon light.
The cross on top of St Mary Star of the Sea Church will be restored with its beacon light.(Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

When a gust of wind took down the cross at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church in Federal Hill last week, a neighborhood beacon fell dark. But that blue light incorporated into the cross atop the old Gothic church tower is promised to return after this latest trial by nature.

Winds and at least one war have determined the fate of the lofty beam of light at Riverside Avenue and Gittings Street. But community resolve keeps one of South Baltimore’s quiet traditions glowing.

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The church was built in 1871, the steeple several years later. The idea came to the church leaders that a lighted star, a maritime beacon, should go atop the spire in the cross. One of its pastors said the presence of the nightly light “was almost a religion” to South Baltimore people.

In 1890, The Sun reported that a light encased in a pair of large glass lenses was casting a ray down the harbor. That light, actually a jet of illuminating gas, atop the tower put the church on the map, and it was soon marked on navigational charts. Perhaps in an exaggeration, the newspaper story said the light could be seen in Annapolis.

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The light was tested in a July 1902 storm that ripped away part of a brick wall that supported the spire.

“A ... landmark for so long when there were no houses between it and the water, [the spire light] has stood as a beacon of hope and welcome to vessels coming into port...," a Sun article said. "A large part of the congregation are seafaring men who remember when the star first began to shine and now feel lost without it.”

After the 1902 storm, the parish lost no time rebuilding its damaged tower. The congregation called upon two Baltimore well-known architects, Ephraim F. Baldwin and Josias Pennington, to provide a better, stronger tower. The city roped the streets off while the damaged brickwork was removed and a new tower rose.

This tower, outfitted with a set of loud bells, served well and became well established in Baltimore harbor lore.

A Baltimore Sun writer, Folger McKinsey, who published his topical verses in the paper for decades, caught the spirit of the light that shone from Riverside Avenue in 1907.

“Pilots of ships, ahoy! And masters of tugs and tow — St. Mary’s watches above the tide with the star of her tender glow. ... In from Henlopen, up from Charles, over from England. ... Old bay pilots, ye know it well, beaming with radiant eye!”

For a time during World War II, when Baltimore was required to observe blackout, the beacon was turned off. After a hiatus for repairs, it returned in 1952.

The next calamity arrived in a brief May 1965 afternoon squall.

Strong winds damaged the cross and its light. The congregation stepped up, passed the hat for a collection and made the repairs. The donations to the church for the wind damage repairs were recorded on giving envelopes. Curiously, these envelopes were placed in the cross and were discovered when it fell recently. The tower light also was given a pronounced blue hue visible, as always, from the harbor.

The church pastor, the Rev. Joshua Laws, said he was amazed to see how well the names were preserved. He is going to use the current situation to have to the 1902 spire structurally strengthened.

“It’s been good to hear that the light means so much to so many people,” he said.

There’s also technology. What began as a lantern changed to gas lighting. Then came electricity and all its variants.

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“Now is the time when we decide if we make the change from neon to LED,” he said.

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