Jacques Kelly: Churches open doors for Advent celebrations of architecture, music

Baltimore’s neighborhood churches are opening their doors this month for guests to enjoy some amazing architecture and to hear holiday music produced by local talent.

These events are certainly opportunities to smell the incense and catch the spirit.

The village of Hampden’s collection of stone and brick houses of worship is open Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. for a house tour. The self-guided journey begins at a Victorian example, the St. Mary’s Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. — a site that demonstrates how many congregations have adopted it over time.

There are surprises on the tour: Who knew, for example, that Hickory Avenue’s St. Thomas Aquinas was the work of City Hall architect George Frederick? Learn more at baltimoreheritage.org.

Additionally, a trio of Park Avenue churches will display their riches at events for the soul, eye and ear:

First, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brass players will fill the interior of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church. There’s something special about serious music performed in settings of atmospheric architecture and splendid acoustics.

“It’s a great marriage of building and neighborhood,” church organist Michael Britt says of the 1870 Gothic Revival building at Park and Lafayette avenues.

The church is also filled with Tiffany Studios memorial windows.

Next, traditional Catholics will arrive early next Saturday, Dec. 15 — even earlier than the 6:30 a.m. start — for the Rorate Mass at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church at Park Avenue and Saratoga Street. This Mass is a centuries-old Advent devotion offered just before dawn. Little electricity is used within this Gothic interior; it is lit by hundreds of candles.

“The more intentions we have, the more candles we’ll be burning,” says the Rev. Michael Cunningham, the church’s assistant pastor. “It’s striking, with the darkness — and with all the lights.”

The Mass takes its name from a passage by the prophet Isaiah: “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just.” It’s a Latin-language Mass, a tradition in the German areas, and is accompanied by a chanting choir.

History intersects with the lights, shadows, rites and traditions here. St. Alphonsus, designed by Baltimore architect Robert Carey Long Jr. and constructed about 1843, has not been altered. Its interior feels ancient and precious. On a cold December morning, arriving here feels like a trip to old Vienna.

Visitors to this amazing Baltimore landmark — which is also a national shrine — will leave the church as the sun lights up the 19th-century cobalt-blue stained-glass windows. One memorial glass panel was donated by the owner of the old Hotel Rennert, which once stood just eastward on Saratoga Street and was renowned for its Maryland cuisine.

And finally, Lisa McNulty, a senior at the Peabody Institute, has been busy practicing Ottorino Respighi’s choral piece, "Lauda per la Natività del Signore” — a majestic composition that involves the Virgin Mary, a shepherd and an angel — for her performance with a 25-member choir at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church. The Candlelight Choral Concert will be held there at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.

“It’s really a special evening,” says McNulty, a mezzo-soprano. “It’s really the only time we really have a full parish.”

It’s not surprising the pews will be packed for this concert, which includes piano, harp and a woodwind quintet, in addition to the 25 voices and pipe organ. In this acoustic setting, the notes resound brightly against the First and Franklin Gothic plaster-enriched interior.

Minister of music Jason Kissel, a Peabody Institute doctoral graduate, fills the nave with seasonal music mined from from his knowledge of music archives and libraries. The time the choir has spent practicing for this event will no doubt be evident.

The 1869 church, with the tallest steeple in Baltimore, will truly resound when Kissel delivers the hymn, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.”

It’s an afternoon that’s the antithesis of shopping mall Christmas music.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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