Seton Hill to host French fair this weekend

It was a sad month when the wreckers leveled the old St. Mary's Seminary on Paca Street in the mid-1970s. When the Victorian landmark where so many Roman Catholic priests received their religious education disappeared, its components went everywhere. At one time, I owned a Calvert Street rowhouse with a staircase partially constructed from spindles salvaged from this part of old Baltimore.

Just as the doors and weathervane were salvaged from the old seminary and put to new uses, its location was also repurposed. I recommend a trip there Saturday for a new Baltimore event, the Seton Hill French Fair, to be held from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event will be staged in what is now a city park, at Paca Street and Druid Hill Avenue.

Why a French fair? Although Baltimore will never be confused with New Orleans or Montreal, we did once have a neighborhood where you could have heard a sermon preached in French. The Roman Catholic congregation of priests founded in France, Society of St. Sulpice, has owned much of this property since 1791 when they arrived, no doubt not very enthusiastic about the French Revolution.

The land they acquired, an amazingly untouched tract that also fronts on lower Pennsylvania Avenue, was then known as the One Mile Tavern. The priests lost little time building a magnificent chapel there, which survives. It gets my vote as Baltimore's least-recognized treasure. St. Mary's Chapel, designed in 1806 by French architect Maximilian Godefroy, sits amid a stand of trees. Many sources say it was the first neo-Gothic church in the country.

Rich in Baltimore history, this neighborhood was the first home to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Roman Catholic religious order founded by women of color who educated Haitian children.

Seton Hill, just a few blocks west of the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon Place, has never been a particularly well-patronized part of the city. St. Mary's Park and the adjoining collection of National Register of Historic Place landmarks provide a delightfully atmospheric glimpse into early Baltimore. Who knew about the park's stand of ancient trees hidden by the surviving monastic walls here?

"It really is one of the most European parts of the city," said Karen French, a Seton Hill Association vice president who is also a Walters Art Museum fine-art conservator. She won a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation to pay for the food permits for the neighborhood vendors who will be selling treats at the child-friendly event Saturday. A volunteer has been drafted to help construct a 6-foot Eiffel Tower replica.

Last year, a visitors center opened adjacent to the St. Mary's Spiritual Center. It is partially made of old seminary walls, in a masterful reknitting of several old structures. It's also a structure that doesn't call attention to itself while bringing all the museum amenities to this worthy setting.

Why is it called Seton Hill? Mother Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, came to live on Paca Street in a large house here. In a letter dated July 4, 1808, she called the house a "neat delightful mansion" built in the "French style of folding windows." She established a school here that is credited with being the precursor of the American parochial school system. Her residence is also part of the spiritual center complex.

The visitors center in many ways fills the structural void where the old seminary stood. A stone medallion, carved with the letters A and M, for the Latin phrase "auspice Maria" or "under Mary's care," is incorporated into the stone walls.

As I walk these streets and little alleys, I often marvel at its longevity and survival rate. In a city of so many unpretentious gems, it's one of the very best.

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