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Priest helps Highlandtown keep the faith


It seems that everybody in this part of East Baltimore knows "the priest."

He is the Rev. Manuel J. Burdusi, the 33-year-old pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the spiritual home of many Highlandtown families.

Father Manuel, as he is called, is the former altar boy who came back to his home parish wearing a cleric's black robes. He grew up on Bonsal Street near Francis Scott Key Medical Center. His church is in the 500 block of S. Ponca St. He is one of the pivotal personalities here.

Part of the reason so many East Baltimore Greeks know Father Manuel is that they watched him grow up.

As a 10-year-old, he assisted at the Divine Liturgy. Then he joined the choir. After his studies at Hellenic College and the Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., he returned to Baltimore. He was ordained in 1989 and named the church's pastor four years ago.

"I always felt comfortable on the path that led me to the priesthood. It felt like home," Father Manuel said.

He also kept things in the family by marrying a woman named Malama (Molly), who also sang in the choir. They have a son named Nicholas, the saint's name commemorated in the church.

"One of the hardest things is to bury a person you've known so well in this neighborhood," he said one day this week.

The loss of a family member in this close-knit community is strictly observed. Many widows wear black after a husband dies. Families have memorial prayer services in the church 40 days after a death. This is often repeated six months later, then after a year, and on the third anniversary.

At funerals, the custom is to have the deceased in an open casket. Close family members kiss the corpse on the cheek. Others may kiss the hand or forehead or a religious icon.

"The formal process of mourning is therapeutic. It helps with dealing with grief. It forces the family back into the life of the church," Father Manuel said.

The life of the church is often the life of this neighborhood. Witness the tremendous activity for this weekend's Greek Folk Festival sponsored by the church. From tomorrow through Sunday, Ponca Street will explode with people, music, food and dancing. It has become one of the city's most popular summer events.

Family ties, church and tradition all mix within this tight community.

Blocks of rowhouses branch off Eastern Avenue in this part of Highlandtown known to some as The Hill, to others Greek Town. Many immigrants from the Greek islands set-tled here in the 1960s and 1970s. With them came their own grocery stores, bakeries, places to sip strong coffee and talk, and restaurants.

Father Manuel's family, for example, came from an island that was controlled by Italy for some years. His surname, Burdusi, reflects this.

His parish has its origins in a little school established here in the late 1940s. It was torn down and the present church built in 1956. Today, it has 1,200 families on its mailing list. Of these, some 700 are active.

"At times it is so busy, it feels like more," the pastor said. "When it gets very rushed, I have to ask my wife, 'Did we pay the bills this month?' "

Father Manuel wears a beeper and is on call at all times.

"I don't want anybody to say they couldn't get a call into a priest," he said.

It is not uncommon for his parishioners to walk to Sunday services. Some 575 of his families reside in the 21224 Zip Code. Another 120 live in Rosedale and 100 more in Dundalk. The parish has a large and vigorous youth organization that its pastor feels is the cornerstone of the community.

Throughout the festival, Father Manuel will be giving church tours -- 4 p.m. and 7 p.m on Friday, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday -- during which he will explain the rich collection of Christian art here. Just this past Easter, the church unveiled a vibrant mural of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Christ child and saints Basil, Gregory, Nicholas and John Chrysostom.

Father Manuel also answers questions about the elaborate religious ceremonies here.

When recently asked, for example, how much incense is used on a typical Sunday, the priest thought for a moment and quietly replied, "Ten tablespoons."

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