A parish in peril: Latinos seek to save St. Michael


Generations of Catholics have followed the sound of bells to St. Michael the Archangel Church and found refuge under the spreading wings and upraised sword of the massive walnut archangel that guards its door.

Founded by German Catholic immigrants in 1852, St. Michael has since been touched by many of East Baltimore's ethnic ebbs and flows: Poles, Italians, Czechs, Koreans, Lumbee Indians and blacks.

Hispanics are the latest wave of newcomers to come ashore at St. Michael, a granite-clad, barrel-vaulted, Romanesque Revival structure at Lombard and Wolfe streets.

But now, as one of 16 city parishes scheduled by the Roman Catholic hierarchy for "restructuring," St. Michael could become

a casualty of Baltimore's growing smaller and poorer.

A decision on whether the church will merge or close is due next month.

St. Michael's appearance on the list of threatened churches is "definitely a slap in the face," said Humberto Marruffo, a Peruvian-born accountant who commutes from his Perry Hall home to worship at St. Michael.

Mr. Marruffo recalls the standing ovation that St. Michael's pastor, the Rev. John Lavin, got in 1992 when he told his immigrant flock that St. Michael would be a bilingual parish.

After a quarter-century of wandering to various Spanish-language Masses, Baltimore's Hispanics finally had an official home at St. Michael.

"Mi casa es su casa," the Redemptorist priest had said, a Spanish expression of hospitality that means "My house is your house."

Why, Mr. Marruffo asks, with East Baltimore's Latino population evidently growing -- and storefront Pentecostal churches siphoning off Spanish-speaking worshipers -- would the archdiocese risk alienating Hispanics by threatening to close St. Michael?

St. Michael's English-speaking parishioners have questions, too: Why, after pulling off a delicate merger with Hispanics, might the parish have to merge again?

Why was St. Michael, with weekend Mass attendance of about 450, lumped with parishes that draw 300 or fewer?

"I was angry," said Betty Balcer, a third-generation parishioner. "All of a sudden, it was, 'OK, guys, we want you to paddle upstream, not downstream.' For me, there was anger and


For nearly 100 years, St. Michael served Baltimore's German-immigrant Catholics and shared in their growing prosperity.

Its first pastor was St. John Neumann, canonized in 1976.

By 1900, the congregation numbered almost 10,000, and the church had assumed its current grand proportions.

A new tower, with scores of electric lights, was a beacon for Catholics from Germany.

Five bells were installed in the tower, and for more than five decades the parish's bell-ringers sounded the Angelus daily across East Baltimore at 5 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.

On the largest bell -- the 4,300-pound St. Michael -- is the Latin inscription: "St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, that we may not perish in the dread judgment."

In 1899, 300 representatives of the Knights of St. Michael formed a cordon around their church as Cardinal James Gibbons came to consecrate the refurbished sanctuary and high altar.

A 'nest' empties

"This was a nest built for eagles," says a 1952 history of St. Michael's first century, "but as time went by, the progeny moved away and decreased, and much of the nest became vacant."

The decline had only begun. In the 1960s and beyond, St. Michael's neighborhoods -- Upper Fells Point, Washington Hill and Butchers Hill -- became more diverse and less well-to-do.

The church took in all worshipers, of all ethnic backgrounds, but their numbers steadily dwindled.

Though St. Michael's fortunes had declined, its architectural integrity, at least, remained intact.

In 1989, it gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

The complex still includes the 1,100-seat sanctuary, the rectory of the Redemptorist community (two priests and two brothers), a parish hall and a religious education center.

Two schools, a convent and a residence for Marianist brothers have found new uses, and a 250-seat theater above the parish hall is dark.

In 1992, the Archdiocese of Baltimore gave a nod of recognition to the increasing number of Latin Americans in the streets around St. Michael.

The church had long been a site for Spanish-language Masses, but only a handful of Hispanics had joined the parish.

Then the archdiocese ordered St. Michael to make Hispanics full partners.

The Redemptorists sent Father Lavin, 53, and, later, the Rev. Andrew Carr, 65, priests with decades of experience in Latin America and with Latino communities in the United States.

Gradually overcoming resistance, they have helped St. Michael form a bilingual congregation that worships in English, Spanish and sometimes both languages; shares dishes unfamiliar to some at church festivals; and whose members increasingly talk to each other.

But now St. Michael's parishioners must confront the possibility of closing.

The archdiocese says it can't afford to maintain 57 Catholic churches, which once served 150,000 members, to serve the aging population of 33,000 parishioners left in Baltimore.

The archdiocese says the status quo is not an option.

Getting down to work

Since May, when the archdiocese issued the restructuring list, St. Michael's parishioners have largely gotten over their anger and down to work.

The parish was told to evaluate itself on criteria such as sense of community, vitality of worship, service to the poor and financial condition.

A nine-member parish team, in more than 30 meetings over six months, took a look in the mirror.

Not surprisingly, the team concluded that the parish should stay open, remain bilingual and, if needed, play host to another church in a merger.

"The restructure process has been a mixed blessing that has brought everything from tears to euphoria," said Ron Balcer, chairman of the team.

"It's hard to see how anyone could conclude you should close down a viable place like this."

The team identified 193 people -- a mix of "Anglos" and Latinos -- who were involved in one or more of 22 activities at St. Michael, ranging from feeding the needy to running Friday night bingo.

"St. Michael has a very strong core of active lay ministers and volunteers, and it was good to recognize that," said Sister Barbara Ann English, executive director of the nonprofit Julie Community Center nearby.

Sister "Bobby," as she is known in the neighborhood, helped guide the team's discussions on behalf of the archdiocese.

'A sense of belonging'

She said St. Michael delivers on what people look for in a parish: "community, a sense of belonging, feeling a part, being appreciated and welcomed."

The St. Michael parish team identified $500,000 in repairs that are needed -- none urgently -- to church buildings.

They include a new roof on the sanctuary, whose interior recently was refurbished. The parish has begun a three-year campaign to raise $400,000. More than $60,000 is in hand.

Weekly collections jumped to $28,000 in the July-September quarter from $19,000 in the same period a year earlier. That still falls 20 percent short of expenses, Mr. Marruffo said.

Since the beginning, St. Michael has been owned and staffed by the Redemptorists, a religious community of priests and brothers who serve there at the pleasure of the archdiocese.

The order, facing a shortage of priests, expects to reduce its presence in the Northeast. But the Redemptorists haven't publicly singled out St. Michael for retrenchment.

"Our goal is to work for the poor folks and immigrants. We'll try to deal with them with the guys we've got," said the Rev. Frank O'Rourke, a member of the Redemptorists' Brooklyn, N.Y.-based provincial council, which oversees Baltimore.

Having found a home, St. Michael's Hispanics are shaken by the idea of losing it.

"Our prevalent thought is that we want St. Michael," Hispanic members wrote Oct. 26 to Bishop John H. Ricard, the archdiocese's urban vicar, who will recommend to Cardinal William H. Keeler which parishes should merge or close. "Most of us come from very far only to come to this church."

The parish's Hispanic leaders have told Bishop Ricard that they would not willingly go to two nearby Catholic parishes also on the list, St. Patrick and St. Stanislaus Kostka.

About 30 percent of St. Michael's parishioners drive to church from the suburbs.

Dr. Ivan Garcia, president of the archdiocese's Hispanic Pastoral Council, said St. Michael poses a test of the archdiocese's commitment.

Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority, are the U.S. Roman Catholic Church's biggest source of new parishioners.

"It really would be a big blow to the trust of Hispanics -- and to the faith of these people -- if they decide to close St. Michael," said Dr. Garcia, an ophthalmologist who belongs to another parish.

Dr. Garcia said affluent suburban parishes should help shoulder the burden of lower-income city churches such as St. Michael.

While the Catholic hierarchy on Cathedral Street weighs St. Michael's fate, a handful of small Pentecostal churches look for prospective Spanish-speaking members in East Baltimore.

The Pentecostal approach

An estimated 18 percent of U.S. Hispanics are Protestants. Pentecostals' direct, personal approach attracts traditionally Catholic Hispanics, said Hector Avalos, an Iowa State University religion professor, because they "move to integrate a needy person into their community quickly. They want to 'save' the person."

The Rev. Angel Nunez, pastor of Highlandtown's 100-member Spanish Christian Church, said Hispanics sometimes view the Catholic Church as a powerful, remote institution.

"They read about $250,000 being raised for the pope to come here for a day, and here's a congregation [St. Michael] trying to survive.

"They say, 'What's going on here?' " he said.

The Rev. Miguel Vilar, a Puerto Rican Episcopal priest, has run a Hispanic ministry at Canton's Church of the Holy Evangelists since 1987.

The church's English-speaking congregation has dwindled, and it is set to close in April. Father Vilar is trying to raise money to keep the ministry open.

He said Hispanics often don't support their churches adequately.

"We are not good stewards in our own churches because we see the church as power," he said. "When we become convinced that this is our house, this is our property, then we start helping."

Hispanics generally outnumber English speakers at St. Michael's Masses, but the English-speaking members still give more money.

The gap, however, is narrowing.

Father Lavin believes that Hispanics feel at home at St. Michael.

Fulfilling a need

"I think St. Michael certainly fulfills the need that Hispanic Catholics feel for being close to God, worshiping in their own language, having a place where their culture is respected and a staff that speaks their language," he said.

Mr. Marruffo, who has lived in the United States since 1962, values the chance to worship and socialize with Spanish speakers of at least 17 nationalities.

"The customs, the language, the sayings are so familiar," he said. "You are able to laugh more and to live a little bit more than trying to translate your way through life."

Bishop Ricard said a decision on restructuring is expected in mid-January.

'Unique gifts'

He won't tip his hand as to the fate of St. Michael or any other parish but says the archdiocese remains committed to Hispanic Catholics.

"We want to assure the complete integration of Hispanic Catholics into every aspect of diocesan life, and we also want the rest of the archdiocese to appreciate the unique gifts they bring to the church, as well as their needs, especially those of new arrivals.

"They remain a priority," he said.

He said that Spanish-language Masses are offered at about 10 sites in Central Maryland and that Catholic seminarians learn the Spanish language and Hispanic culture.

The Hispanic Apostolate, with offices in the old St. Michael's boys' school, offers social services.

St. Michael's parish team -- English- and Spanish-speakers alike -- believe they have done all the archdiocese asked of them.

They have labored long over a thick "parish restructure workbook" and have recommended that St. Michael live to see its 150th anniversary and beyond.

The team has solemnly done its work at Lombard and Wolfe streets, knowing all the while that, as Betty Balcer said, "the ultimate decision will be made on Cathedral Street."

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