Each morning before he embarks on his self-appointed chore of cleaning up his neighborhood, Dennis Harrall looks up for inspiration.
For 20 years, against the backdrop of pouring rain or blazing sun, Harrall has found comfort in the cross atop St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church, across the street from his home at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street.
"I love it, it's so beautiful," said Harrall, 58. "The whole neighborhood changed [for the worse] when they took the cross down for a few months."
The tin cross, which dates to the church's founding in 1873, was temporarily removed while Shaw Steeple Jacks of Johnstown, Pa., renovated the steeple this winter. The $150,000 project, part of the church's 125th anniversary celebration, is to be completed tomorrow.
"We thought if we worked on it, it would be a source of encouragement for the neighborhood," said Sister Jeanne Barasha.
In the spring, Barasha said, St. Ann's plans a rededication ceremony for the steeple and will sell some of its slate slabs, which were too costly to replace. The congregation also will bury a 125th anniversary time capsule near an anchor outside the church.
That anchor came from the famous Baltimore clipper ship the Wanderer. The story goes that in 1833, Capt. William Kennedy was caught in a raging storm off the coast of Vera Cruz. He promised God that if he made it home, he'd build a church.
Kennedy returned safely to his wife, Mary Ann Jenkins, and the St. Ann's cornerstone was laid in 1873 -- the same year Kennedy and his wife died. The church was completed in 1874 and was later expanded.
It has become a landmark in the Northeast Baltimore community of Greenmount, which, Barasha said -- and reality shows -- suffers from typical inner-city problems: Vacant houses, trash-filled alleys and loitering.
"This was once a predominantly white congregation, but as the neighborhood changed, the congregation did too," said Erich March, 47, vice president of March Funeral Homes, who has been a St. Ann's member since he was 4 years old. "That lowered the economic base, funds dwindled, and the church faced urban problems."
With about 150 core members, March said, it's a close-knit congregation that offers the community food assistance or shelter.
Neighbors, in turn, respect the church, said Evelena Wright, a nonmember who has lived across the street from St. Ann's for 40 years. Known as the "Window Woman" because she checks on the church through her window each day, Wright, 56, said she rarely sees crime near the church.
Though vandals have tagged sides of houses and walls around Greenmount with graffiti, the large white anniversary sign hung last summer in front of the church has gone untouched.
"The church has always been there, and it's done a lot for the neighborhood," Wright said.
But St. Ann's almost closed about five years ago when the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that 16 parishes were targeted for reorganization or closure.
"After that announcement, we started our 'Pennies to Heaven' campaign to get ourselves stable," Barasha said.
Asking for donations of any size, the eight-week fund-raiser gained nationwide attention and yielded about $30,000, Barasha said. St. Ann's also started reorganizing its five-building campus, while repairing a few worn-down buildings.
The parish downsized to two buildings -- the church and the rectory. The others -- a school, townhouse and a convent -- are being sold, Barasha said.
Funding for the steeple project came from the church's building fund, a grant from the Knott Foundation of Baltimore, the Cardinal's Lenten Appeal -- an annual collection to support the archdiocese -- and private donations. An anonymous donor gave $3,500 to have the cross gold plated, Barasha said.
Dan Beabes of Shaw Steeple Jacks said the work, which began Oct. 5 -- a few days after the anniversary celebration -- entailed climbing the steeple's narrow, winding stairs, removing the cross and the slate slabs, installing an ice and rain shield, and applying shingles.
Wright said the workers drew a lot of attention from passers-by. On one of the first evenings of work, Wright said, a crowd gathered outside the church to congratulate the descending workers on their efforts.
Harrall videotaped the cross being raised atop the steeple.
For a church that faced closure five years ago, March said, the new steeple is an "anchor" for St. Ann's future. "It's a blessing," he added. "It's a sign of our revitalization."
Pub Date: 2/04/99