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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Seeing history in a burned and broken steeple in East Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Part of the steeple falls from the Urban Bible Fellowship Church in East Baltimore during a four-alarm fire in March 2020. The steeple, constructed in the 19th Century when the church was St. James the Less, was believed to have been struck by lightning.

I stood at the corner of Eager and Aisquith to regard the burned-and-broken steeple of a once-stunning East Baltimore church. I saw in the gaping wound the past and present — the decades of white flight from the old neighborhood, the diminished presence of the Catholic Church in the city and the loss of faith generally across the land.

This mashup of history came from the gray sky over Aisquith Street, in the place where the steeple cracked apart in a fire caused by lightning in March 2020. No one has come to rebuild the magnificent steeple. Next door is the Institute of Notre Dame, founded in 1847, the Catholic girls school that closed a couple of months after the fire.

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There you have a common story in Baltimore, a city still recovering from decades of abandonment, a loss of more than a third of its population since 1950 and the concentration of its poor.

For nearly 140 years, the steeple of St. James The Less Church had stood 256 feet tall, with a 10-foot cross atop it. The Baltimoreans who designed and built this church in the mid-19th century added the tower so that it could be seen for miles, summoning thousands of Catholics, mostly of German ancestry, to Aisquith and Eager.

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That lasted nearly 100 years before white flight commenced. I once found a chart of Baltimore’s population in the 20th century: It was large and stable, more than 900,000, until 1954, the year of the Supreme Court’s ruling that “separate but equal” in public education was unconstitutional. Almost immediately, the number of city residents dropped. Desegregation was on the horizon, a threat to whites who wanted nothing to do with racial diversity.

And so a church that could seat 1,800, a house of worship so architecturally impressive that it gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, lost its flock. The parishioners of St. James The Less scattered to other parts of the city and the suburbs.

The same thing happened a few blocks away, at St. Francis Xavier Church, another eye-popping edifice that includes a remarkable bell tower. In the late 1960s, the neighborhood and parish turned from white to Black. A proposed merger of St. Francis with an all-white parish never happened.

But while St. Francis remains a Black Catholic parish to this day, St. James the Less ceased to exist. By 1986, the parish had been dissolved. The Archdiocese of Baltimore closed Saint James and sold the building.

“Most regrettably,” states an online history of Germans in Maryland, “the church has been stripped of its [stained glass] windows, altars, marble Communion rail, pipe organ and other artifacts, and the church has been whitewashed, destroying its beautiful and historic murals.”

At least one small congregation used the church for worship before it was sold to Pastor Carl Pagan and his Urban Bible Fellowship Church.

Pagan, a successful business owner in the city, turned to Christian ministry in the 1980s, staking out a place for his church at Eager and Aisquith, in one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, across from Latrobe Homes.

He stepped down as pastor due to illness in 2020. A short time later, the steeple snapped off the bell tower in the fire caused by the lightning strike. Pagan died the following August.

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“He gave it his all — his money, his time and his love,” says his widow, Margaret. “He was a good man.”

The church has been sold again, this time to what appears to be a religious organization in West Baltimore. I await word of its plans for old Saint James.

Could there ever be again a congregation large enough and wealthy enough to afford a full restoration of the church?

The history ghosts cry out again as I look up at the broken steeple: So many Catholics left Baltimore that the Archdiocese had to close mighty churches that earlier generations had built with sweat and devotion. Other worshippers came along in smaller numbers, with more faith than money; they could not possibly fill the void, or the pews, left by the thousands of families that moved away.

And it’s not as if a new wave of believers will soon arrive to save or reopen old churches. Polls repeatedly show that fewer and fewer Americans attend any church on a regular basis or even state a religious affiliation. Those trends worsened during the pandemic.

“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” goes the Bruce Springsteen song about Atlantic City. “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

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Maybe. Maybe someday Baltimore will see a surge of new immigrants. Maybe more descendants of those who left Baltimore, the great-great-grandchildren of the long-ago departed, will stake a claim in city life. Maybe more of us will find our way to quiet faith, free from stridency and prejudice, and wish to gather again.

And maybe, instead of leaving grand old churches in mournful states, they should be repurposed. St. Michael the Archangel Church in Upper Fells Point claimed 10,000 parishioners in 1900. But a century later, despite a passionate effort to keep it open, the church went dark. It was eventually “rendered to profane use,” in accordance with canon law, and developer Ernst Valery turned it into the Ministry of Brewing. You can now get a beer, in Communion with others, where priests once celebrated Mass, where long-ago couples were wed, babies baptized and the dead commended to God’s mercy.


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