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Priest's resigning angers residents

The Baltimore Sun

Much has changed in the once-blue-collar neighborhood of Locust Point in South Baltimore. Factories have made way for pricey developments, watering holes have been displaced by upscale eateries.

But the edifice on Fort Avenue, Our Lady of Good Counsel, has stood unaltered, long a pillar for the area's Catholics. Down the street is the Episcopal Church of the Redemption. A few blocks away is the Christ United Church of Christ, better known as the German Lutheran church.

For more than 100 years, congregants from these three churches have gone to one another's dinners and carnivals, attended funerals and weddings together, and collaborated on bake sales and bingo nights.

So the news yesterday that the Rev. Ray Martin, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel, was forced to resign for offenses that included officiating at a funeral Mass with an Episcopal priest, was met with outrage. Community members of all faiths decried Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien's action and vowed to protest, noting how sharply it seemed to break from the emphasis on religious tolerance by his predecessor, Cardinal William H. Keeler.

"Locust Point was ecumenical before it was kosher to be," said Joyce Bauerle, 65, who attends the Church of the Redemption. "The three churches have always worked together. We do dinners together. We work at their church. They work at our church. Christmas bazaars, Easter bazaars, we always help each other.

"This is just a big slap in the face to this whole community," she said yesterday. "We're appalled by this."

The three women sitting around her, all congregants of Our Lady of Good Counsel, nodded their heads in agreement.

One, Helen Kazmarek, an 81-year-old lifelong Locust Point resident, wore a T-shirt with a picture of the community's three churches.

"A Community In Unity," it read.

An Irish immigrant, Martin came to Our Lady of Good Counsel in 2000. Two years later, he became pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, which also includes the St. Mary's Star of the Sea and Holy Cross parishes.

"Ray's opened his arms to everyone," said Colleen Rosenbach, 69. "We love him. He's right there with the people. He's gets out, he dances with you. He's like your big brother.

"This I don't understand," she added. "I just don't understand."

Kathy Carroll, 60, has gone to Good Counsel, just a half-block from her house, all her life. Four years ago, when her brother was ill in the hospital, she called Martin. Fifteen minutes later he arrived, remaining at her brother's bedside even after she left, praying with him.

"He's one of the most compassionate and caring priests I've ever been around," said Carroll.

The irony of the situation, the women said, is that the offense took place at the Oct. 15 funeral of Ann Shirley Doda, a local activist legendary for saving Fort McHenry from being plowed over by Interstate 95 and a proposed bridge.

The Mass, led by Martin, included several clergy, including the Rev. Annette Chappell, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Redemption, whom Doda's family asked to participate.

Chappell read the Gospel, which only ordained priests and deacons are allowed to do, and received Communion, which only Catholics may do, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Caine said these acts "gave the appearance of concelebration of the Mass, which is a violation of Canon law and is also a cause for confusion."

The archdiocese received "multiple complaints" about the Mass, Caine said. "We have ministers of other denominations participate in weddings and funerals all the time. ... Their presence alone does not constitute a violation of the church. It's very common that they be present and that they offer words of prayer."

Caine stressed that Martin's other offenses were equally serious and included hiring a maintenance man who had criminal charges on his record. Martin was told to dismiss the employee on Oct. 2, and hadn't done so by Nov. 2, Caine said. "He failed to follow the hiring and screening policies of the archdiocese."

Other offenses included allowing his dogs in the sanctuary, not showing up for scheduled events and poor administration, said Caine.

Martin met with O'Brien on Thursday and was asked to resign, which he agreed to, Caine said.

Martin has not been defrocked but has been barred from celebrating Mass publicly. He is being asked to go on an extended retreat at a monastery in Pennsylvania to reflect on his actions.

His future remains unclear, but it appears unlikely that he will return to South Baltimore.

A statement Martin signed apologizing for "bringing scandal to the church" will be read during Mass at all three area Catholic churches tomorrow.

Congregants at Our Lady of Good Counsel are organizing a silent walkout after the statement is read, said Natasha V. Rossbach, 37, who lives in Brooklyn.

"We are just going to get up and walk out to give Father Ray our support and show how much we loved him," said Rossbach.

Rossbach, who is not Catholic but whose husband is, said part of the reason she decided to raise her 3-year-old son as a Catholic is because of Martin.

Some parishioners attributed a renewed interest in the church to Martin.

Anne Marie Rossbach, 47, a lifelong Locust Point resident, was baptized, attended school, received the sacraments and got married at Our Lady of Good Counsel.

When Martin arrived in 2000, Mass attendance was down and funerals were outnumbering baptisms. "In the past seven years that he's been there, Mass attendance has increased substantially, we've registered new families and for the first time baptisms are exceeding funerals," said Anne Marie Rossbach.

Chappell said she talked with the Episcopal bishop yesterday and that he expressed concern. She declined to reveal specifics of the conversation.

"There's a great deal of cooperation between the three churches here," said Chappell. "A large number of families have family members that are members of more than one church.

"We have all these permutations, so we're very much used to working together. It's wonderful. It's an ecumenical cooperation that just adds to that strong community support that we have in Locust Point."

On the 1300 block of Andre St., Bauerle and her three friends say they wonder how Martin's actions are a "scandal" when the real scandal, to them, is what the archdiocese has done.

"We just don't understand, it just doesn't make any sense," said Carroll. "As Christians, we're taught to forgive."

"I thought the Catholic Church was making inroads to embracing everyone, but I guess not," added Bauerle.

Said Kazmarek: "But we've been doing it amongst ourselves."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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