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Baltimore Catholic conversions: A church becomes a beer hall; a school will house the homeless | COMMENTARY

Project PLASE plans to convert Whiteford Hall, the old St. Joseph's Monastery elementary school, into temporary and permanent housing units for Baltimore's homeless, including veterans.
Project PLASE plans to convert Whiteford Hall, the old St. Joseph's Monastery elementary school, into temporary and permanent housing units for Baltimore's homeless, including veterans.(Dan Rodricks)

A few times in recent months I have stood next to old, abandoned Catholic school buildings, old Catholic convents and rectories, and old Catholic churches and wondered: What happened? There were once parishes with thousands of families in Baltimore, the oldest diocese in the country. Where did everybody go?

We know the answer, of course. The story unfolded right before our eyes over the last five decades: White flight, changing attitudes, fading faith, schism and scandal, closed and consolidated parishes. And still, a Catholic boomer stands there and looks up at the cross on the high peak of a massive old school building and feels puzzlement, loss and a tickle of guilt.

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But enough of that.

Time marches on.

Instead of a wrecker’s ball, we get to welcome the adaptive reuse of these sturdy old buildings. We get to celebrate, in the spaces where Catholic families once received the sacraments, where the sisters once taught arithmetic, new purpose and new life.

The magnificent St. Michael The Archangel Church in Upper Fells Point has been “rendered to profane use,” in accordance with canon law, and becomes the Ministry of Brewing this week. You can get a beer there now. While some may see this as sacrilege or an omen of the apocalypse, I raise a glass to the Ministry’s success.

For those interested in supporting a reuse perhaps more fitting for an old Catholic place, I bring news of Beacon House Square in Irvington, on the southwest side of the city.

Once upon a time (1893 to 2010), it was the St. Joseph Monastery elementary school, a large building known as Whiteford Hall, at Old Frederick Road and Morley Street. Along with an adjoining building, it is slated to become home to the homeless, a place where poor people making life transitions can comfortably reside for a few months. It will also offer permanent housing for veterans unable to find an affordable home.

It’s a $24 million development of Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment), a non-profit that for 45 years has quietly and steadily provided housing and social services to Baltimore’s poor, including homeless families, veterans, people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities, people with the AIDS virus and ex-offenders trying to make a successful re-entry after decades of incarceration.

In a recent year, between the summers of 2018 and 2019, Project PLASE helped more than 1,500 people, including some 600 veterans. The program offers temporary housing in north-central Baltimore and works with landlords to find apartments, in the city and counties, for people with federal housing vouchers. Project PLASE says that, once settled, more than 90 percent of its clients remain permanently housed.

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Beacon House Square will be its biggest project.

The old St. Joseph’s school, a three-story building with a gymnasium/auditorium on the top floor, and the second floor of the adjoining building will be converted into 32 temporary housing units and 56 efficiency apartments. The scheduled renovations preserve historic features of the school, including aspects of a large balcony in the auditorium.

The project has been in the making for most of the last decade and, when completed, will be a crown on the career of Mary Slicher, one of Project PLASE’s founders in 1974 and still its executive director.

“I do believe there are angels in the city, who without we will not progress ... we will not survive.”

A judge was heard to say that a few years ago in Baltimore Circuit Court, and he could have been speaking of Mary Slicher.

She was one of the first responders to the growing problem of men, women and sometimes whole families living on Baltimore’s streets. I met Slicher in the late 1970s, just a few years after she and some fellow students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County established a walk-in center for the homeless in Station North.

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“It was literally a lifesaver,” says Jeff Singer, one-time board member of Project PLASE and former president of Health Care For the Homeless. “We placed one of the first Baltimoreans with AIDS at PLASE during the time when almost everyone was deathly afraid of that mysterious illness. It was Thanksgiving of 1983 and this gentleman was extremely sick. We placed him in a North Avenue motel over the long weekend and Mary Slicher agreed to shelter him afterward. Project PLASE became an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness and people with AIDS.”

Project PLASE also sheltered transgender people at a time when, says Singer, no other shelters would.

“Her quiet, persistent and yet forceful leadership and accomplishments have been truly remarkable,” says Kevin Lindamood, the current president of Health Care For The Homeless. “And I found her so inspirational. It’s people like Mary who inspired me and so many others to continue in this work.”

Singer calls the Beacon House Square project a “testament to Mary’s tenacity, intelligence and persuasiveness.” Slicher had to do a lot of lobbying in Irvington, Allendale and St. Joseph’s to convince neighbors that the project would not ruin their communities.

That was seven years ago. Work is set to begin this summer. Project PLASE still needs to raise $500,000 to close a gap in financing. The non-profit’s first annual Blanket Ball takes place Saturday, Feb. 8, at 2640 Space on St. Paul Street. If you like how all this sounds — an old Catholic school repurposed as a home for the homeless — you can find more information at projectplase.org.

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