St. Katherine's keeps the faith Church: Members of this Episcopal parish, whose structure has just been named a city landmark, are staying put, despite the drug trade on the corner outside.


It takes more than sidewalk sinners and decades of suburban flight to unsettle the parish of St. Katherine of Alexandria, an Episcopal chapel of high church ways at the corner of Presstman and Division streets.

Here, beneath a dark, timbered ceiling reminiscent of the English countryside, this parish family vows never to leave its home within the heart of the historic black neighborhood where it has worshiped since 1911.

En route to their timeworn pews, dignified women in Sunday hats and men in pressed suits bypass the torturers of many an urban community: noisy, brazen drug sellers and the stream of their cash-in-hand customers.

To fortify its post in the community, St. Katherine's -- the church where Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was confirmed -- recently petitioned the city for landmark status.

And Monday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed the bill making the church an official landmark.

The church "reminds me of a country parish on a city street corner. You walk in off the street and enter a secluded and contemplative, dark, Victorian interior," said Eric Holcomb, staff member of the city Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.

The Rev. William Redmon, interim rector, explained that the church is named for a fourth-century Egyptian woman who was martyred. She is traditionally depicted with the spiked wheel that was used to torture her. When the wheel broke, her tormentors beheaded her.

A statue of the church's patroness sits near an oak communion rail and an altar set with six candles. Paintings of the saints round out an incense-scented sanctuary little changed in the last century. The oak pews seat about 225.

The city's research for the landmark designation notes that the gray-stone, wood-trimmed church was built in 1882 from designs by prominent Baltimore architect Charles E. Cassell, who also built the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Cassell's plans for the church were published in The American Architect, a prominent journal of the day.

City landmark status is an honorary designation that brings no funds but helps protect a structure from demolition.

Parren J. Mitchell, who represented the city's west side in the U.S. House of Representatives for many years, is a church member. Principals of Douglass and Dunbar high schools have attended, as have many members of the well-known Murphy, Nixon, Recklin and Weaver families.

So did lesser-known generations of Episcopal families who sought the church's stately ways and the friendships forged in west side homes and schools.

"They used to call this place Sugar Hill," said John Burleigh, a retired city housing authority official who sings in the choir, referring to the area where the black community lived along McCulloh, Druid Hill and Division streets and Madison Avenue. "These were the top families. Not all of them worshiped at St. Katherine's, but many did," he said.

For decades, St. Katherine's sought and received little notice, preferring its prayerful ways and unheralded works of mercy -- such as the operation of two orphanages.

Most weekdays, sisters Mary Elizabeth Smith Stanley and Katherine Nettles arrive early at the church for Mass. They often volunteer for restoration projects -- such as stripping old paint and varnish from choir pews and the parish confessional, where the rector receives penitents on Saturday afternoons.

"We came from a large family, and all of us were baptized here. This place is home to us," Stanley said.

On a recent Sunday, about 125 people were spread about St. Katherine's nave.

"I think you'll still see the marks on the front pews where the zTC orphans used to sit," said Redmon.

But even during the 10 a.m. Sunday service, the corner outside the church is a scene of frenetic drug activity. "Sometimes the drug hawkers are so loud they disrupt a service," said Burleigh.

Twice in St. Katherine's history, the congregation was given the opportunity by church authorities to distance itself from urban problems, but it rejected leaving for sites in Walbrook or Forest Park.

Ever vigilant, the parish recently took financial responsibility for a large day-care center on North Avenue. During the 1980s, it sponsored the Penn North Plaza high-rise for the elderly at North and Pennsylvania avenues.

"The old-line families are accustomed to traditional standards," Burleigh said. "Many of them possess considerable material wealth, but they are very humble, compassionate and charitable people. There's a warmth and love among the parishioners."

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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