Bernie Madoff's Baltimore Catholic connection

Perhaps the news was lost in all the shuffling of parishes by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in recent years: St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, a focal point of immigrant life in Fells Point since the mid-19th century, will close in August. It should be further noted that the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province, who have been running St. Michael's through thick and thin for 160 years, say the decision to close the church has nothing to do with their significant losses in Bernie Madoff's massive fraud.

If you did not know of the connection between the world's largest Ponzi scheme and the Redemptorist priests of Baltimore, welcome to the club. I didn't either, until a friend already mourning the closure of St. Michael's mentioned it. As far as I can tell, only the National Catholic Reporter and Bloomberg noted the connection, and that was two years ago.

"We, the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province, along with many others, entrusted part of our endowment to Mr. Bernard Madoff, who is now accused of fraud," the Rev. Patrick Woods, the provincial superior, said in a letter to donors in 2009. "We have professional investment advisors, and we have listened to them over the years. Fortunately, we diversified our endowment and are still in a position to continue the work of our province."

Father Woods noted that the endowment, established at the turn of the 20th century with a bequest to a Redemptorist priest, had grown over the decades. But his letter did not give a value for the endowment, nor did it specify losses in the Madoff fraud.

The National Catholic Reporter, however, said the losses were "significant" and could cause the Baltimore Province to reduce or cancel some of its ministries here. A spokesman for the province told the Reporter that proceeds from the Madoff investment had been used to "fund Catholic-school scholarships for inner-city children, to train future priests and brothers, to care for our elderly members, and to fund other pastoral ministries, such as financial support to those suffering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the terrible tsunami of December 2004."

The newspaper said the Baltimore province had been investing with Madoff since 1992.

The mastermind of the fraud, now in prison, once had thousands of clients, including movie stars and other celebrities, some of whom have spoken publicly about their Madoff losses. But the Redemptorists have not been as forthcoming.

On the other hand, the Redemptorists have been more open about the financial realities at St. Michael's, a parish that once claimed 10,000 members, many of them German immigrants, and that in recent years became the principal Catholic church for the Hispanic community in the archdiocese.

In February, a joint statement from the province and the archdiocese justified the church's closure by saying St. Michael's needed $9 million in urgent repairs. "Neither the Redemptorists nor the archdiocese have the clergy or financial resources to allow St. Michael's to continue fulfilling its ministerial mission," the statement said. "Sadly, this means the parish of St. Michael's will no longer be able to remain open and necessitates the moving of Hispanic ministry to Sacred Heart of Jesus." That's another Catholic church, in Highlandtown, several long blocks to the east: Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.

The switch takes place during the first weekend in August and the Feast of the Transfiguration. Masses will be celebrated in English and Spanish.

The joint statement said nothing about the Madoff losses, and when I asked about the connection to the closing of St. Michael's, I was told there was none.

"This was a decision based on pastoral priorities — the desire of both the archdiocese and the Redemptorists to find the best way to serve a growing Hispanic population," said Stephanie Tracy, communications manager in the Redemptorist office in Annapolis. "And it was a decision necessitated by prudence." She repeated the assertion that funds are not available to make old St. Michael's safe for worshippers.

Maybe so. But had there been no Madoff losses, perhaps the Redemptorists would have been able to keep San Miguel parish going. Hispanic immigrants have long been seen as the potential critical mass in Baltimore's next wave of homesteaders and small-business owners. They could renovate and inhabit vacant homes, bring new life to city blocks long abandoned. It's hard to see the closing of their principal church as anything but a setback for that effort and, despite the official denial, it's hard to imagine that "significant" losses to Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme didn't have something to do with it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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