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One family's faith in '90s 3 generations may disagree, but remain indelibly Catholic


It falls to 16-year-old Corrine Livingston to carry her family's Catholicism into Christianity's third millennium. A senior at Mercy High School, she attends Mass when she can fit it in, which isn't too often. "With work and school and doing plays, I never have time," she says.

Her 39-year-old father, Michael, who left his parents' East Baltimore rowhouse at 13 to enter a seminary high school, makes Mass only about twice a month.

The spotty attendance distresses 69-year-old family matriarch Marie Livingston, whose life has been devoted to St. Wenceslaus, the old Bohemian church that struggles to survive across the street from her North Collington Street home.

"In my day, there weren't any excuses," says Mrs. Livingston. "Whether you could walk or not, you went." Mrs. Livingston, the only member of her family with a ticket to see Pope John Paul II at Camden Yards on Sunday, celebrates Mass three to four times a week.

Compared with the Depression-era Catholicism that defined Mrs. Livingston, it would appear that the years have diluted the fervor of her family's faith.

Mrs. Livingston carries a rosary wherever she goes, dipping often into her pocket to finger the beads and recite Hail Marys. Michael Livingston sometimes prays the rosary on his fingers during long drives. Corrine was taught the devotion, but rarely does it. Family rituals such as kneeling around the dining room table together to say the rosary during Lent have not survived.

Pronounced differences

On matters of doctrine, the generational differences are pronounced. Corinne is the most liberal, standing apart in her desire for a church that ordains women and belief that each woman has a right to choose on the issue of abortion. Unlike his mother, Michael supports birth control, favors abortion in cases of rape or incest and believes priests should be able to marry.

"In real life, I can't agree with everything I was taught," says Michael, a data processing supervisor for T. Rowe Price. But "I know what I have inside -- faith in God and a strong background in doing what's right. I may say a prayer to myself going down the street, but it's not something I'm going to talk about in a bar."

In a time when the American Catholic Church has been fundamentally changed by the Second Vatican Council, the women's movement, a shortage of candidates for the convent and priesthood, and postwar prosperity that transformed working-class urban Catholics into middle-class suburban ones, the Livingstons have remained indelibly Catholic.

Michael and his wife, Diane -- a Catholic who works for the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart nuns in Towson -- invited a priest to bless their new home when they moved from Bradshaw to Havre de Grace about two years ago. Their son Benjamin, 12, goes to St. Stephen School in Bradshaw.

A Crucifix on her wall

And the first thing Corrine did when her folks moved into the Bayview Estates development was hang a Crucifix on her bedroom wall.

"I know that God's with me, that He'll help me through things," says Corrine, who learned the value of faith two years ago when an uncle died suddenly. "I pray before I go to sleep, I've prayed for help getting jobs or passing tests or when I felt sick. And when I've had a fight with friends or my family, I talk to God about it. Just because I don't make it to church all the time doesn't mean I'm not Catholic."

Her father credits Catholic schools for much of Corrine's character.

"I wanted to give my kids the foundation for starting off in life, and Catholic school teaches values; hopefully it teaches you respect," he says. "Even when I was making $4 an hour, we were going to get them there."

About the only time Michael and his brothers return to the streets of their childhood is to visit their mother, virtually the last of the old parishioners who still lives within walking distance of St. Wenceslaus. Through the years, Mrs. Livingston's family members have tried to get her to move out, but they have learned to save their breath.

"The only place I'm going is from here to the funeral parlor and then to St. Wenceslaus" for her Mass of Christian burial, she says.

Her family worries about her safety in a neighborhood that has deteriorated severely in the past 25 years. "She said she was outside when a shooting occurred and saw the bullets flying," says Corrine. "I'm like: 'Grandma, you're out of control.' "

Homes where friends and relatives were born and raised are blighted and boarded; keeping trash from accumulating is "hopeless"; and attendance at St. Wenceslaus' 700-seat sanctuary has declined in Mrs. Livingston's lifetime from a half-dozen packed Masses every Sunday to fewer than 200 people for three weekend services.

'It won't ever be the way it was'

Buoyed by an influx of black parishioners who've brought African-American Catholic hymnals to the pews, St. Wenceslaus escaped closing this year when the Archdiocese of Baltimore "twinned" it with St. Ann's, another once-vibrant but long-suffering parish at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street.

"You know it won't ever be the way it was again around here, but it could be better," says Mrs. Livingston, now helping the parish plan a 125th anniversary celebration for 1997. "People are afraid to come here. I just pray that the ones who do will be safe."

The historically Bohemian St. Wenceslaus parish -- named for the 10th-century Duke of Bohemia and the patron saint of Czechoslovakia -- was founded in 1872 by Catholic immigrants seeking to worship apart from the Poles and Lithuanians settling southeast Baltimore.

The neighborhood the Bohemians staked out as their own -- blocks of rowhouses north of Johns Hopkins Hospital along Madison Avenue and Monument Street -- was once known as Swampoodle.

A kind of village Catholicism

Mrs. Livingston -- daughter of a Czech immigrant named Frank Michal and Barbara Novak, a first-generation American from Madeira Street -- was baptized at St. Wenceslaus in 1926.

From her first breath, she entered a world where family, neighborhood and school fused in a kind of village Catholicism: Everyone she knew went to the same church, learned to read and write at the same school, memorized the same catechism and traced their lineage to the map in the Old World.

St. Wenceslaus was flanked by a Redemptorist rectory, a convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a church school and an auditorium to celebrate baptisms and weddings. Here, Catholicism seeped into kids' bones whether the youngsters liked it or not.

To this day, Mrs. Livingston can rattle off the old Baltimore Catechism like it was her phone number. "We had to know who made us and why," says the 1944 graduate of Seton High School. "It was simple: 'God made me to know him, love Him and serve Him.' "

The old ways and the tight-knit neighborhood endured together until about the time Michael made his First Holy Communion, just before the changes of Vatican II in 1965 began filtering down to the neighborhood. Four years later, white flight that began in the 1950s was accelerated by riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"When I started school, you looked at the back of the priest during Mass. Then they turned it around and the nuns took off their habits," says Michael. "It was easier for me to accept the changes than my mother."

A reply for the 1990s

Corrine, who belongs to a Christian youth group and works the annual St. Stephen carnival, has gone to Catholic schools since kindergarten. Asked the old catechism question -- "Who made you and why?" -- she repeats the question, as if it's the strangest thing she's ever heard.

But after thinking about it a moment, the teen-ager says: "God made me so I could make a change in the world. I believe he made everybody and he made me. He wants me to put my mark in the world. I want to do that by designing sets in the theater."

At one time, Marie Livingston believed she was made to enter the convent. "When I was in high school, that's all the nuns preached to you," she says. "I always thought I would be a Daughter of Charity and wear a big boat hat. It just didn't work out."

Instead, after leaving Seton and working for a few years, she married Arden Livingston, a Protestant from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who joined St. Wenceslaus in an era when converts were discouraged from ushering at Mass or joining the Holy Name Society. Mr. Livingston outlived that time to become an ordained deacon.

When Mrs. Livingston joshes that her granddaughter might "become a nun," Corrine shakes her head, amused at the absurdity of the notion.

A different agenda

With three silver earrings in each ear, a pager in her pocket and a taste for rap music, Corrine has listened politely to school presentations on the value of religious life, but becoming a nun is definitely not on her agenda.

When it's time to fall in love and marry, however, she says she'd prefer a Catholic. "I want a husband who believes what I believe. Someone who believes in the salvation of God."

At Mercy High School -- where the administration enforces hemline regulations and tuition is $4,500 a year -- students take religion courses with titles such as "Bio Ethics" and "Life Choices for Christian Women." They learn Scripture, church history and study papal encyclicals on abortion, capital punishment and the moral debt the world's rich owe the world's poor.

"Sometimes it can appear that our programs are not as demanding or stringent as in the past, but I think in terms of actual awareness, our young women have a much broader picture of Catholicism," says Elizabeth Lambertus, a former nun who chairs the religion department. "These young women are allowed to come to their own conclusions, but my position is to present the teachings of the church, whether or not they want to hear it."

Michael Livingston thought he heard the call to the priesthood while serving as a St. Wenceslaus altar boy. His older brother, Arden Jr., already was at St. Mary's, a Redemptorist seminary high school in North East, Pa., and Michael was going to go, too.

"I wasn't forced into it, but once I decided, Mom and Dad were so happy, I saw that gleam in their eye," he says. "A 13-year-old probably doesn't know what's involved, but 'Father Mike' sounded nice to me."

After graduating from the 12th grade, the lure of girls and cars and having fun began speaking more strongly to Michael than studying Latin and the Gospels. Arden already had quit the seminary, and his little brother wasn't looking forward to breaking more bad news at home.

"For one whole week after graduating, all I thought about was 'Do I really want to go through with it? Should I do it to make them happy?' I probably cried when I told Mom," he says. "She was hoping one of us would do it. Back then, everybody wanted a priest in the family."

Now, Mrs. Livingston prays that the Roman Catholic Church will sustain her family once she's gone and that her grandchildren will teach the faith to their children.

"It's something you don't have control over, but I hope they carry it," she says. "They've all been brought up to carry it, to do the right thing."

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