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Churches try to retrieve grand trappings of past


The neo-Gothic sanctuary of the St. Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church was intricately decorated, its marble high altar lined with gold candlesticks and flanked by representations of adoring angels and floating cherubs.

But then came 1968 and what some consider the church's desecration.

The carvings were taken down, the high altar torn out, statues removed and the church accoutrements - chalices, vestments, candlesticks, altar cloths - unceremoniously dumped out front.

"They literally put the stuff on the sidewalk," said the Rev. Thomas Malia, pastor of the South Baltimore parish, "and people took it away."

"I've often said after I did that job," said Francis X. Gibbons, the man who designed the renovation, "that I raped St. Mary, Star of the Sea."

Now, parishioners are attempting to restore the red-brick church to its former glory, a sanctuary built with the coins of Irish immigrants, a church that has proudly overlooked Baltimore harbor for 130 years, the light atop its tall spire serving as a beacon for generations of mariners.

The church is part of a nationwide movement, principally among Catholic churches, to correct the sins of the 1960s and 1970s when a renewal movement sought to update worship and simplify architecture. Well-intentioned reformers put indoor-outdoor carpeting over terrazzo flooring and tore out anything smacking of religious grandeur to create what they believed were more intimate, theologically correct worship spaces.

"We have seen a real trend all across the country. People are yearning for beautiful architecture and beautiful churches again," said Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

"What's been shocking in the last 30 or 40 years, across denominations, is these things have been done, stripping and destruction of architecture, in the name of updating. But it's pretty revolutionary. I see it as inherently violent," said Stroik, editor of the journal Sacred Architecture.

Churchgoers in other parts of the country are coming to hold the same perspective as St. Mary's parishioners.

At the Emmanuel College Chapel in Boston, the grandiose high altar had been abandoned and a smaller altar table was set up in the middle of the church, surrounded by fan seating that critics said distorted the chapel's intended layout. In a restoration completed last year, the altar was restored to the front of the church, constructed out of pieces of the old altar railing.

At St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Lemont, Ill., a renovation in the 1960s removed all ornamentation and covered delicate stenciling with beige paint. The stenciling was reapplied in a restoration completed last month. The pastor, the Rev. Kevin Spiess, had to scout for furnishings - such as an elevated Gothic pulpit and a life-size crucifixion scene - in antiques stores across the country, from dealers and on Internet auction site eBay.

Locally, the College of Notre Dame in North Baltimore is in the midst of a $1.5 million restoration of its Theresa Hall Chapel, where a vaulted ceiling was hidden by metal ducts and a drop ceiling. Pine floors had been covered with carpeting and plaster walls with wood paneling.

What was in play was a debate over form and function in Catholic church architecture sparked by the Second Vatican Council, the reforms of the mid-1960s that modernized church theology and practice.

The documents of Vatican II emphasized that the Mass was not solely the province of the priest, and called for the participation of the entire congregation. The response brought several changes. The Mass, which had been celebrated in Latin, was translated into the vernacular. The priest, who had prayed the words of consecration over bread and wine at a high altar with his back to the congregation, now faced worshipers from behind a free-standing altar closer to church members.

Many churches were renovated to encourage the congregation to participate in the Mass. It was "a noble attempt to update architecture so people's understanding of church would change," Malia said. "I'm not sure how well that really worked."

In the case of St. Mary's, it was intended to be a showcase for Baltimore parishes on how to implement Vatican II changes. "They wanted to use this as an example of what could be done with an older church," Malia said.

The pastor hired Gibbons, whose firm, Gibbons of Baltimore, has done work in many of Baltimore's historic churches.

These days, he specializes in restoration; he recently worked on many of the city's acclaimed churches, including St. Ignatius and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic churches and Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

At St. Mary's in the 1960s, in the place of the old altars and candlesticks, Gibbons placed more modern furnishings in the sanctuary, including a large, freestanding stone altar.

"What we put in there, I submit, was very good. It just didn't fit the architecture of St. Mary's," Gibbons said. "But you do what the customer wants."

For many parishioners, the changes to their beloved church were upsetting.

"It was devastating to a lot of people and still is to some people who remember what the church looked like at one time," said Mary Frances Garland, a lifelong parishioner.

But not all was lost. This year, parishioners cleaning out a junk-filled garage behind the church found an old baptismal font on the floor - in pieces. After a maintenance man gave it an acid wash and reassembled it, Malia put it in the front of the church for Easter baptisms, a sign of things to come.

It is not just the old-timers who are heartened by the retrieval of St. Mary's past. Some of the most enthusiastic responses have been from the rapidly growing numbers of younger parishioners in their 20s and 30s who have moved into the area, attracted to the rowhouses and rooftop decks of Federal Hill.

"This is exciting to the young people because they're looking for content in their lives, something that isn't disposable," Malia said. "That's why [the discovery of] this baptismal font was so exciting. It represents the continuity between the community of the 19th century and the community of the 21st century."

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