Monsignor Arthur F. Valenzano, the rector of downtown Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption who oversaw a $3 million restoration of the church after it was damaged by an earthquake, died of leukemia Saturday at the archdiocesan rectory at Charles and Mulberry streets. He was 66.
He was formerly pastor of St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Westminster before he became the 24th rector of the basilica, a post he had held since 2010.
"He lived the priesthood in such a faithful and loving way, and he had such a winning personality that he was respected by everybody," Archbishop William E. Lori said. "Everyplace he went, he had a way of lovingly sharing the faith and winning people's confidence and friendship."
Born in Frostburg, Monsignor Valenzano was raised in the nearby small community of Eckhart Mines. While student at St. Michael's School, he considered entering the seminary.
"He was a popular grade school student. He played basketball and football for the Catholic Youth Organization," said his brother, John J. Valenzano, a Salisbury resident. "But it was a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Melmarie Gentry, who encouraged him to the priesthood."
Monsignor Valenzano moved to Catonsville after the eighth grade and enrolled at the old St. Charles Seminary, a campus of buildings that now functions as the Charlestown retirement community.
"He came home in the summers and worked for a cousin who was a stonemason," said his brother. "He mixed mud and carried rock. My brother was always down to earth. He was a humble man."
He continued at the seminary and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He also received a master's degree in divinity from St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park. He was ordained a priest in 1975.
He served at St. Ambrose in Park Heights and at St. Mary of the Assumption in Govans. He was named a pastor of St. William of York in Ten Hills, where he served from 1986 to 1993. He was then named pastor of St. John's in Westminster, one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
"He loved to sit on the back porch of the St. John's rectory and listen to the Orioles game on the radio," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, a friend who is pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester. "He had a great heart. He found it very hard to say no to anyone. He was completely other-oriented."
When named a monsignor in 1996, he was the youngest priest in the archdiocese to receive the title.
"He was beloved wherever he served," said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese. "And he was very much a part of wherever he served."
In 2006, when on a sabbatical in Rome, he became feverish and sought medical treatment. He was diagnosed with leukemia.
"I flew over to be with him. Looking back, it's been a long battle. He never complained. He told me his nine-plus years with the condition made him a better priest," his brother said. "He ministered to the sick as a priest, and he said could better understand what they were going through."
The monsignor consulted physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital and had two bone marrow transplants.
In 2010, he was named rector of downtown Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption.
A year later, the building shook as an earthquake struck the Mid-Atlantic region.
"You expect an old building to require ongoing maintenance, but an earthquake is just not on your radar screen," he said in a 2013 Baltimore Sun article, which added that those present said the whole building shook. Monsignor Valenzano was driving on Interstate 95 at the time and arrived a bit later. The news account said he entered the building to see something bizarre.
"The pews were covered in plaster dust. It looked as though it had snowed," the monsignor told The Sun, adding that he looked up and observed what appeared to be hairline cracks in the ceilings.
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When the $3 million restoration of the basilica was completed in 2013, he told The Sun, "You know how people say you don't appreciate what you have until you've nearly lost it? It's true. I'm blessed to work at [the basilica], and I'm excited for the repairs. I'll never take it for granted again."