3 groups appeal to keep St. Michael's from closing


The Church of St. Michael the Archangel at Lombard and Wolfe streets, a towering landmark in East Baltimore since the middle of the last century, is far more than a place to hold religious services, neighborhood leaders have told the Roman Catholic archdiocese.

Closing St. Michael's would hurt the whole community, not just its Catholics, they said.

"The presence of the church keeps drug dealers at bay, violent crime at a minimum and the streets cleaner. If you don't believe us, just check the crime statistics with the Southeastern District Police."

This is the core of an appeal from three community organizations, representing Butchers Hill, Washington Hill and Upper Fells Point, in response to Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard's recent announcement that St. Michael's is one of 16 churches that may be closed by the archdiocese because of shortages of money and priests.

Most of the targeted churches, with attached rectories, convents and schools and rich ethnic histories, are large, ornate symbols of another urban era. St. Michael's was founded by Germans but now conducts a citywide ministry to Spanish-speaking Catholics.

The formation of a new organization, specifically to block the church closings, was announced yesterday. It is called OPEN -- for Older Parishes Energizing Neighborhoods.

Pasquale Spinnato, longtime lay leader at St. Michael's and a spokesman for OPEN, said it grew out of concerns about the effects of the archdiocese's plans on East Baltimore, but priests and members of Catholic churches through out the city are being invited to join.

Older churches on the list of 16 may be replaced by new, smaller ones and, in some cases, two or more congregations will be merged under one pastor, Bishop Ricard told 125 clergy and staff from the 57 city parishes in a meeting May 17.

Details of the "restructuring" will be decided by November and "difficult decisions" will go into effect within a year, said the bishop, who is Archbishop William H. Keeler's urban vicar overseeing the city churches.

The bishop has directed each of the parishes to study its resources and programs and marshal arguments if it wishes to persuade the archbishop to keep open its church.

The appeal to remove St. Michael's from the list came as a statement was crafted in a series of neighborhood meetings this month and endorsed by the Upper Fells Point, Butchers Hill and Washington Hill community groups.

The authors of the statement, which was mailed to Bishop Ricard June 24, included Mr. Spinnato and Sister Barbara Ann English, a leader of the Upper Fells Point group that operates the nonprofit Julie Community Center at Lombard and Washington streets, in the shadow of St. Michael's.

A member of the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur, "Sister Bobby," as she is known throughout East Baltimore, has managed the Julie center for nine years.

Joining in the appeal to the archdiocese were Rita Hubbard, president of the Washington Hill Association, and Carol Coleman, president of the Butchers Hill Association.

Closing St. Michael's "would prove to be a great disservice to thousands of people living in these areas, both Catholic and non-Catholic," they said.

City Councilman John L. Cain, a 1st District Democrat, who took part in meetings that led to the appeal, reminded archdiocese planners that in its heyday St. Michael's was "an incubator church" nurturing what are now prosperous, growing suburban parishes. "Why don't they have a collection once a year to benefit the parent church or adopt it in other ways?" he said.

Mr. Cain likened the shutting of parish doors to the closing of inner-city libraries. "They close them in the very places where they are most needed," he said.

In the letter, the heads of the three community organizations told Bishop Ricard, "You are mistaken if you believe this is an issue of relevance only to members of the Catholic Church. . . . Perhaps you don't realize the amazing strength one church building can bring to a community.

"It's not unusual to see priests and nuns from St. Michael's walking the streets of Upper Fells Point, greeting people, evangelizing, and just being there. That sight sends an important message, especially to our children. There's so much talk these days about how little ones are growing up without values, without role models -- please don't take away what, for some, may be their only positive role models."

In response, archdiocese spokesman Bill Blaul said the community groups had indicated "a commendable level of commitment" to saving St. Michael's, but they must follow it up with "tangible resources." He said that "the status quo is not an option."

Among the ministries within St. Michael's Parish are Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Head Start, the Hispanic Apostolate and Joseph House, operated by the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary, who provide food, clothing, counseling and other assistance to troubled families.

Two members of the Joseph House staff, Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Linda, were part of the team that drafted the appeal to keep St. Michael's open.

The parish was established in 1852. Its first pastor was Bishop John Neumann, who was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church in 1976. The handsome church building, the result of more than a century of enlargements, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Bishop Ricard first warned that 16 parishes were in danger, he said, "The church buildings and physical plants at many of these parishes are at once historic and beautiful, yet oversized and in urgent need of repairs and renovations."

At St. Michael's, the dwindling Redemptorist order of priests that staffs the church recently spent about $1 million on renovations. Further repairs being proposed could cost another $1 million, including a new roof for $300,000, Mr. Spinnato said.

One archdiocese proposal that has upset members of the parish would close it as part of a merger with St. Patrick's on South Broadway, where major reconstruction was completed recently -- with insurance money -- after a fire nearly destroyed the church in 1983.

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