Mass honors a church's changing mission; Parish embraces social, multicultural stance


Up the aisle they went. Ashley Reid brought a miniature house, the four Udumukwu sisters carried a gold five-pointed star, and Justin Bridgeforth presented a white cylindrical time capsule at the altar of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church.

The children delivered the offerings -- each symbolizing part of the Northeast Baltimore parish's traditions and its changing mission -- during a special Mass yesterday capping a yearlong celebration of the church's 50th anniversary.

It was a celebration that honored the past, as well as the many changes that have marked the evolution of the urban parish at a church whose congregation is 700 families strong.

"We've really worked on going beyond the walls of the church," said the Rev. Joseph Muth, pastor of the church at Loch Raven Boulevard and Woodbourne Avenue.

The symbols behind each of the children's gifts seemed to underscore Muth's philosophy.

Ashley's model, a lector explained to the crowd at Mass yesterday, represents "house meetings" held by the parish to address the community's needs.

The points of the star stand for the five areas that parishioners want to focus on: services to immigrants, cross-cultural understanding, neighborhood outreach, spreading Christian teachings and meeting the needs of children, she said. And the time capsule, buried later in the church's prayer garden, marked the golden anniversary of the parish with items including a school handbook, parishioner list and photos.

"We see the work of the church as to not just build a church, but also bring life to the community it's in," Muth said.

The strategy has helped the church survive population shifts in the community and the aging of the congregation. The church was the first in the Baltimore archdiocese to have a parish council after Vatican II. Parish members helped found several community organizations, including Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD), and used an interfaith approach to attract members.

"It's what churches have to do," Muth said. "Otherwise, it closes itself off and begins to die."

When St. Matthew's opened in 1949, the parish was predominantly white. But as many white residents fled to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of parishioners fell.

Now 40 percent of the 700 families in St. Matthew's parish are white, said Kathleen O'Toole, a member of the committee that organized the yearlong celebration.

Between 50 to 75 of the original families are still members of the church, she said.

Mary Jane Vaeth, 72, who has been a member for 47 years, said that as people left, many in the church made an effort to reach out to the increasing African-American and immigrant population in the area.

"Some people opened up and accepted it, some did not," Vaeth said. "But I think what we've become is the way it should be."

The congregation is made up of people from 27 countries, O'Toole said. Small flags from each country hang from columns in the sanctuary.

The church has embraced these different cultures by including customs in their services, such as the international celebration at Christmas and New Year. The Mass yesterday combined contemporary and gospel choirs with a Nigerian Ibo Catholic choir.

Muth's sermon focused on the importance of diversity and what it means to the future of the church. "The founders of this church did not have you in mind, but you know what?" Muth told the congregation. "God had you in mind."

Peter Njau, 37, who moved to Baltimore 10 years ago from Kenya, said he joined the parish because he felt welcome in a place where people hold hands and know each other.

A member for five years, Njau married his wife, Evangeline, in the church and had his 14-month-old daughter, Malaika, baptized there.

"I like the pastor, and I like the people," Njau said.

Don Smith, 74, a member since 1954, said the change in the congregation has brought new energy to the church. He handed out packets of seeds to parish youths yesterday to symbolize their role in the church's future.

Pub Date: 9/20/99

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