The usual standing-room-only crowd at St. Margaret's Church in Bel Air will make room for one more person May 13 -- Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore.
The cardinal will participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new mission center on Route 22, halfway between Bel Air and Churchville, at 2:30 p.m., the Rev. Francis X. Callahan said.
Then, after leading the celebration of the 4 p.m. Mass of Thanksgiving, Cardinal Keeler will walk around the St. Margaret's campus to bless the original church and to dedicate a new building with classrooms and administrative offices. The cardinal will leave St. Margaret's at 5:30 p.m. for Rome.
"It's a very old tradition that the Catholic church tries to live up to that a new building should be blessed and dedicated," said Don Thomey, 69, who has been construction manager for many of St. Margaret's projects.
The original church, built in 1905, is being gutted and renovated to serve as a library and adult education building. It should be close to completion by the cardinal's visit, said Mr. Thomey, a retired construction materials supplier. He said the building's wooden exterior will not be altered because it is a sentimental and historic landmark for the congregation and Harford County.
Mr. Thomey, who lives in Forest Hill, said construction plans began three years ago when Mr. Callahan decided that the parish was "bursting at the seams."
St. Margaret's, Harford's largest congregation, has about 14,000 members but only 1,000 seats in the church. Seven Masses are " held each weekend, one of them about a mile away in the John Carroll High School auditorium.
"We're too crowded for worshiping," said Father Callahan, 57, of Bel Air.
Mr. Thomey agreed. "Sometimes there are people standing three and four deep [in] the church," he said.
According to Sister Rosalie Murphy, director of the Division of Planning and Council Services for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the congregation at St. Margaret's has grown considerably in the last five years. She said the parish had "the most sizable growth in Harford County." The congregation increased from 3,385 families in 1990 to 4,290 families in 1994, representing an increase from 10,558 individuals in 1990 to 13,024 in 1994.
Mr. Thomey said the congregation has grown with Harford County's population.
"People keep moving out to Harford County, and St. Margaret's isn't large enough," he said. "If people want to come worship, it's our responsibility to find space for them.
"We're trying desperately to do it."
To accommodate the overwhelming number of people, a new missionary center is being built to serve as a multipurpose center for 600 people, said Mr. Thomey. The $1.5 million project should be finished by early next year.
"This will be the beginning of a mission out there," said Caryn Sacenti, administrator for St. Margaret's Church. Church officials hope the center will eventually become a separate parish.
"The most enlightened projection for the year 2005 is that the mission center will be the largest Catholic congregation in Harford County, with the exception of St. Margaret's," Father Callahan said.
Mr. Thomey, who has been a member of St. Margaret's for 24 years, said he is probably more excited than the rest of the parish because he has had hands-on experience as construction manager for St. Margaret's many projects.
He said he's "taken those projects from dreams to completion."
Cardinal Keeler, 64, was born in Texas and raised in Pennsylvania. He began service in the Harrisburg diocese in 1956 and was bishop there from 1983 to 1989. He was appointed archbishop of Baltimore, the nation's oldest diocese, by Pope John Paul II in 1989. The pontiff named him to the College of Cardinals in November.
Cardinal Keeler, then archbishop of Baltimore, first visited St. Margaret's in October 1989. This year's visit will be his first to Harford County since he became a cardinal.
"We're very pleased and honored that he is coming out to Harford County to share our blessing," Mr. Thomey said.