Revitalizing a church and its congregation

The Baltimore Sun

An 1883 altarpiece glows after a painstaking restoration at a downtown Episcopal church. The mother of pearl, the gold-leafed opalescent glass, the colors of an Impressionist painting were there all the time, hidden under four layers of retouching and crude repainting.

The sculptural panel depicting the Virgin Mary and St. John is the centerpiece of a six-month refurbishment at Mount Calvary Church, Eutaw Street at Madison Avenue.

"Before I started, the figure of St. John resembled actor Tony Curtis. Someone had painted spit curls on his forehead. His face was the color of a pink hot water bottle," said arts conservator Mark F. West. "It was painted like a carousel."

The renewed altarpiece is emblematic of the $1 million renewal effort of the small congregation, which describes itself in a parish publication as a "bulwark of orthodox Anglican practice."

"The physical building and the morale of the congregation had been in decline," said Father Jason A. Catania, who arrived as rector of the congregation more than two years ago. "In terms of the congregation, we've turned a corner. Everyone is very enthusiastic about the work and about our future."

The altarpiece, known as a reredos, or decoration at the rear of an altar, has an impressive pedigree. It is the work of painter and glass artist John LaFarge, who lived from 1835 to 1910.

LaFarge was a graduate of St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg and worked at a New York City studio, where he established a client list that included Harvard University and some of the fanciest religious congregations in the Northeast, as well as railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built the Breakers in Newport, R.I.

While LaFarge's paintings and stained glass are exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this Baltimore commission has remained in the shadows until earlier this year.

Beginning in the spring, the 100-member congregation moved into a temporary worship space so the church's nave and sanctuary could be substantially renovated. New oak pews arrived about two weeks ago, just after scaffolding used by painters and electricians was removed. Once custom-made floor tiles are delivered and installed, the church will be ready to use.

A collaboration between architect Brian Kelly, church renovator and contractor Chris Oktavec and stencil artist Barbara Thompson worked to create a warm, rich interior that plays up the building's Victorian origins. (The congregation was formed in 1842, and the building was designed by Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long Jr.)

The church's leadership decided it was time to make a change and embarked upon a thorough rebuilding effort. It is considering the replacement of its Gothic Revival steeple, which was toppled by a violent snowstorm in March 1914.

"We are blessed with significant resources," Catania said. "It seemed this was the right thing to do."

He said he did not miss the two "Ponderosa steakhouse-style light fixtures" that came down as part of a new lighting design. He also wanted the church's marble high altar, with its prominent tabernacle, to become the sanctuary's focal point.

"The altar now draws the eye," West said. "It has emerged from 80 years of ill-conceived repairs."

Catania said the congregation at times put off improvements to the buildings in order to fund other projects.

Many years ago, the church used its funds to support two African-American Anglo-Catholic parishes, St. Mary the Virgin in Walbrook and St. Katharine of Alexandria in Druid Heights.

In the 1980s, working with the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, an Anglo-Catholic order of nuns, it established the Joseph Richey Hospice several doors north of the church. The hospice is raising funds for a children's wing expansion. The hospice, which primarily serves city residents, helps the dying find comfort.

"We are excited about this renovation and hope many people will come and share our joy in this beautiful house of God," Catania said.


* The church was founded in 1843 and its building was completed and consecrated Feb. 19, 1846, in downtown Baltimore at Eutaw Street and Madison Avenue.

* The John LaFarge reredos, or altarpiece, was completed April 20, 1883.

* The steeple was toppled by a violent storm that began on March 1, 1914.

* The church restoration began in late March and cost nearly $1 million. The congregation numbers about 100.

* The church also supports the adjoining Joseph Richey Hospice, 838 N. Eutaw St.

* The Web site is

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