Church prepares to close its doors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While peeling potatoes in the church kitchen of Christ the King one morning, Mary Branch laughed over how family and friends sometimes joked about her tireless devotion to the Dundalk parish.

"Over the years, it was suggested that I move a cot into the boiler room," Branch said.

The lifelong resident of Turners Station was reaching for a touch of humor at a time of much sadness in her church.

Christ the King, a Roman Catholic parish established in 1956 by the Josephite religious order to serve the nearby steel town of Turners Station, will close Sunday.

In justifying the closing, the Archdiocese of Baltimore notes a dwindling number of priests throughout the church and fewer parishioners at Christ the King, growing financial concerns at the church and three other Catholic parishes in Dundalk within a two-mile radius.

There are other reasons, notably the transformation of the Baltimore County town of Turners Station, once a strong, family-based community of steelworkers that has fallen on hard times, matching the decline of the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant that was sold this year.

"This church was a beacon to me and my family," said Branch, whose three children received the sacraments there, became successful and moved away.

"We've had an aging parish for some time with no new development to attract young families," Branch said. "We had bingos, church suppers, flea markets, but they could only go so far in saving our parish."

When the Josephite Priests and Brothers opened the church, about 320 families were in the parish. Today, it has about 100.

Nobody is more touched by the closing than its pastor, the Rev. Richard P. Wojciechowski. He has been a priest for 40 years. For the last 25 of them he baptized the parish's infants, heard confessions, married young couples, celebrated Mass and administered the last rites.

Now, he is preparing to offer its last Sunday Mass. As the archdiocese will attempt to sell the property on Sollers Point Road, Wojciechowski, 66, will be a residential priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Middle River and will serve at nearby St. Clare's.

"I have been a one-priest parish for some time now," he said, smiling. "According to my calculations, I have about six months of vacation time coming."

In a way, the priest's career is a metaphor for Christ the King and, in a larger sense, the Catholic Church.

As a child, he grew up in the 2200 block of Gough St. in Highlandtown. He had two brothers, a sister, a father who served 30 years with the Baltimore Fire Department and a mother who managed the home and family.

"As a kid, I would ask [my mother] for a nickel for a snowball," the priest said. "She would point to the refrigerator and tell me to eat a piece of fruit instead. ... It was better for me, she said, and the family would save a nickel."

In those days, the priest can recall 10 Catholic parishes in or near old Highlandtown, all flourishing and serving large congregations of second-generation families from Europe. His church, Holy Rosary on South Chester Street, embraced 5,000 families then, but several years ago fell victim to shifting demographics and budgetary concerns, closing its school.

"In my neighborhood, once I was ordained, people would tell my parents that I was one of the neighborhood boys who made good," Wojciechowski said.

After serving several parishes, among them Holy Rosary, the priest was assigned to Christ the King in 1978.

"By then, a housing project was closed in Turners and a lot of blacks moved into Baltimore," said Dr. Ted Patterson, a retired physician from Millers Island. Patterson converted to Catholicism at Christ the King and later married his wife, Sylvia, a parishioner.

"What also impeded the growth of the church was that they had no school," Patterson said.

First crisis

The parish was blue collar, a mix of black and white parishioners who pitched in for the priest's first major crisis, one that struck his beloved church his first weekend in Dundalk.

"There was a tremendous storm, and it resulted in a three-foot hole in the roof of the church," Wojciechowski said. "Two men worked to restore the roof and everyone pitched in to pay for that work and to paint the church."

But within the decade, "you just knew the church would not survive. We had fewer and fewer young people in religious classes, not as many people were showing up for Mass, and the area was changing."

"It was quite sad to watch Turners Station go into decline," the priest said. "People were moving out of this part of the county, and drugs were taking over."

'This is so sad'

Ann Zapora, 81, witnessed that transformation. She grew up and still lives within walking distance of Christ the King. Before her legs gave her trouble, she walked every morning to the church for Mass.

Now she worries how she will tend to her spiritual needs.

"I spent many hours on my hands and knees scrubbing that church," Zapora said. "My three children were baptized there, my daughter married there and one daughter drives from York, Pa., every Sunday to attend Mass."

"Everything changed, people moved, but we remained like one big family," she said. "We have gotten to know Father Richard so well. We love him dearly, but this is so sad."

And now, Ann Zapora must find transportation to one of the other area churches - St. Rita, Our Lady of Hope or Sacred Heart of Mary.

As for Wojciechowski, he will wear white, symbolizing special occasion, for his final Mass.

"It's what I wore, as a young priest, that first Mass I celebrated," he said.

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