First came the protests outside St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Fells Point -- then the goodbyes, followed by silent grieving.
The 120-year-old Roman Catholic church held a Mass of Remembrance and Thanksgiving yesterday -- its final service. The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced its closing in March because of dwindling attendance.
The parish has served Baltimore's Polish community since 1879, when immigrants settled in Fells Point to work at canning companies and in the shipping industry.
Yesterday, 300 people packed the steamy church -- the temperature inside nearly 100 degrees -- for the service. It followed a protest by three dozen parishioners who prayed to the Virgin Mary in hopes of a miracle that would save their church.
The protesters directed terse comments at the archdiocese, describing its decision to close St. Stanislaus as another "evil" directed at American immigrants.
"I think it's an attack against every Christian today," said Eva Maria Mantegna of Highlandtown. "We are fearing there is a trend to get rid of all Polish churches."
But the anger was mixed with sad reflection.
Parishioners shared memories of marriages, christenings, funerals, Catholic school educations -- and times of hardship.
They told tales of arriving in Fells Point after spending time in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and finding St. Stanislaus' congregation offering blankets, Bibles, housing and free English lessons.
Tales of proud sons on the front steps of the church as they entered the military and headed for Europe to stand guard against the repression that had stifled freedom in Poland.
Tales of bell-ringing and street celebrations in 1978, when the Vatican announced the selection of John Paul II, the first Polish-born pope.
And tales of prayer and street demonstrations in 1980 to show support for the Solidarity movement in Poland.
"This is the community that built Baltimore and built America, and when everyone was fleeing to the suburbs, they stayed," said a teary-eyed U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who lived in Fells Point until 1996 and used to attend the church.
Move to suburbia
Many third-generation sons and daughters of the Polish immigrants left Baltimore for back yards and tree-lined cul-de-sacs in the suburbs.
The archdiocese "twinned" St. Stanislaus in 1995 with St. Casimir in Canton, meaning the two parishes shared a pastor. But as attendance continued to dwindle, the archdiocese opted to close St. Stanislaus.
Some former parishioners, young suburban families, returned yesterday, wearing "I Love St. Stanislaus" buttons and T-shirts.
They were joined by retirees from as far as Florida and Texas, who traveled to Baltimore to attend the final service.
"I came back to be with my parents; my entire family was either married or buried from this church," said Paula Logue, 55, of Cambridge. "I know some of the older parishioners are really upset."
Like a tree
The Rev. Ross Syracuse, pastor of the two churches since 1997, urged elderly parishioners not to blame those who moved to the suburbs for the closing of St. Stanislaus.
During his sermon, Syracuse said the church was like a tree that grew in an asphalt parking lot in Brooklyn, N.Y. The tree, he said, always returned even if it was burned, trimmed or chopped down.
Syracuse said that just like the tree, parishioners' religious faith has been "planted" by St. Stanislaus and will continue.
"In each of us, the indestructible seed has been planted and that tree grows in each of us, the tree has taken root," Syracuse said.
"Those of you who grew up here and left did not do a bad thing. You have carried what you learned here in your hearts to elsewhere where it will flourish and expand," he said.
An effort to preserve
An effort has begun to preserve the church as a museum or a place for silent prayer.
"The immigrants paid for this church; they should just give it back to the Polish people," said Laura Ginski, 64, of Fells Point.
Mikulski, who attended the Mass and met with parishioners, said she supports efforts to preserve the building and pledged to work with parishioners.
Others are skeptical and believe it will be impossible to save the church and an adjoining closed Catholic school from gentrification.
"I can tell you why it closed," said Constance Manowski, 83, of the 600 block of S. Streeper St. "It is big money. Have you ever tried to buy a house around here?"