For the third time in its nearly 150-year history, St. John Catholic Church in Westminster will break ground on a new house of worship - a $6.5 million building that will become the largest parish church in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Cardinal William Keeler will officiate at a March 3 ceremony blessing a vacant plot of land along Route 140 near Sullivan Avenue, where a 20,000-square-foot church will stand in about 15 months. The new church will accommodate a growing congregation that could reach 15,000 people by 2005.
As St. John builds for the 21st century, the church is reaching back into its history, using the original marble altar and many plaques, windows and statues that once filled the original St. John Church, which stood on the city's Main Street - now the location of the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library.
The new building will seat 1,200 and resemble the original in design. Architectural plans call for a brick building, traditional in design, with two wings at its sides, a steeple and a stained-glass window - which once graced the Main Street church - at its entrance.
It will sit behind the existing St. John Church, built in 1972 on the western outskirts of the city - a circular building now destined to become the parish social hall. Thirty years ago, it easily accommodated the parish's 400 families. Today 4,100 families are registered members.
"At first we looked at renovating that building, but we soon realized it would not work, because we just keep growing," said Terry Jones, chairman of the building committee.
Parish dates to 1853
St. John began in 1853 as a mission church, and parishioners gathered for Mass wherever space was available. A dozen years later, they built their first church, a towering building that dominated the city's skyline for 100 years until it was declared structurally unsound and razed.
The new church will have room to grow. "We can add balconies to the main nave and to each side and bring the total seating to 1,900," said Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, the church's pastor.
Typically, about 3,500 people attend the seven weekend Masses. Often, the 700 available seats are taken, leaving standing room only.
"At 7 p.m. Mass on Ash Wednesday, we had more than 1,000 people," said Jones.
The archdiocese, which oversees the metropolitan parishes, required St. John Church to raise half the construction costs before breaking ground and to have the balance in hand before the building opens.
"The money aspect makes you nervous, but I know the people here will make it happen," said Valenzano.
Parishioners have raised a little more than $4 million, and Valenzano is certain his congregation will donate the remaining funds.
"People have been very generous and have sacrificed greatly to make this building possible," he said.
Shortage of priests
The archdiocese had considered starting a fifth Catholic community in Carroll County, but "we simply do not have the resources, particularly the priests," said Valenzano.
The four parishes are located in the county's main growth areas and include St. Joseph in South Carroll, St. Bartholomew in Manchester and another St. Joseph in Taneytown.
"Size is still a concern because you can get lost in a crowd," said Valenzano. "Large numbers are always a challenge, and it is often impossible to meet everyone's expectations, but that does not mean we can't try. I am an eternal optimist. We can work together and reach out to each other."
Some 40 church-sponsored ministries meet regularly in the parish center offices.
"I am one person, but this church is more than its pastor and its priests," said Valenzano. "It has to go beyond what I am. Our parishioners make this church personal."
The church construction is part of an $8 million, 10-year master plan for the parish that has included expanding the school to accommodate its current enrollment of 500 students, remodeling the rectory into offices and the old convent into a home for the pastor and two assistant priests. The only nun on the parish staff resides in a small home on Wimert Avenue near the church.