Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

In Baltimore, turning an abandoned church into the 'Ministry of Brewing'

And so, later this year, there will be a brewery where priests once celebrated Mass, where thousands of couples were wed, where thousands of babies were baptized. In fact, large stainless steel tanks have already been installed in the sanctuary of old St. Michael the Archangel Church, at Wolfe and Lombard, in Upper Fells Point.

“Old” is an insufficient description for the amazing stone edifice on that high corner of Washington Hill. I should say “former” church because it has been closed for eight years and, at some point before the Redemptorists sold it off, St. Michael’s was “rendered to profane use,” in accordance with canon law.

So no one can officially claim sacrilege when they see what the new owners, trading as the Ministry of Brewing, have in mind for the place. Nor will it be the first house of God turned into a house of beer.

Before I go on, allow me to describe the mixed feelings that suddenly appeared in my old altar boy brain as I stood in the center aisle of what was once one of the largest Catholic churches in the country’s oldest diocese.

I guess we should be long past sadness about the Roman Catholic Church, but even for those who tried to make a comeback and failed, angered by the nature and extent of clergy sexual abuse, there’s still ambivalence. This was your church once, and the church of immigrant ancestors until their dying days. Going to Mass to receive the Eucharist was a tradition we grew up with and carried into adulthood.

It’s hard to let go of that, despite all — despite all that overshadows the church’s charitable works around the world: the abuse scandal that has cost at least $3 billion in damages and millions of followers, the Vatican’s foolish unwillingness to break from the all-male, supposedly celibate priesthood.

As church attendance fell over the last half-century, the hierarchy had to consolidate or close parishes.

It was not merely the loss of faith and trust that led to this.

In Baltimore, there was the loss of some 300,000 residents over a half-century of social change. Among those who fled the long-standing city parishes were increasingly affluent, mainly white families. They moved to suburbs, and the archdiocese built churches for them there, eliminating the need to return to the old neighborhoods on Sundays.

This — and Bernie Madoff — hurt St. Michael’s, particularly. (I’ll come back to Madoff in a moment.)

St. Michael’s opened in 1852, when its parishioners were mostly German immigrants. Its pastors and curates once served one of the largest flocks in the premier American see. St. Michael’s had 10,000 parishioners in 1900. Its campus included a rectory and large parish hall, a girls school, a boys school and a convent. Over the years, the ethnicity of those who received the sacraments at St. Michael’s changed, reflecting the population of East Baltimore through the 20th Century — Poles, Italians, Czechs, Koreans, Lumbee American Indians and African-Americans. By the early part of this century, St. Michael’s had become a beloved parish of Hispanic immigrants. Despite a passionate effort to keep the historic church open, it went dark in 2011.

Now, about Bernie Madoff.

A decade ago, when federal prosecutors revealed Madoff’s massive fraud scheme, they listed the Redemptorists, the order of priests who had run St. Michael’s for 160 years, among his victims.

Starting in 1992, the Baltimore province had entrusted part of its endowment to Madoff. According to the National Catholic Reporter, proceeds from the Madoff investment were used to meet many needs, including scholarships for Baltimore children to attend Catholic schools. The Reporter said the Redemptorists had suffered “significant” losses as a result of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Though the Baltimore province denied it at the time, it was hard to believe the losses did not contribute to St. Michael’s demise.

The city has a lot of empty buildings, but because of its location and mass, taking up half a block, St. Michael’s was especially regrettable, a reminder of what once was and could probably never be again.

And then, one day, Ernst Valery, a developer with expertise in historic tax credits, and his partners — David Wendell, Jeff Hunt and Michael Powell — bought the church and remaining buildings from the Redemptorists. Starting last summer, construction crews have turned the parish hall, rectory and girls school into apartments, keeping many of the original features — including some of the classroom chalkboards — in place.

And the grand space of St. Michael’s, with its barrel-vault ceiling, will become one of Baltimore’s largest brew pubs, with tables made from timbers taken from parts of the church, a long bar and kitchen. Valery thinks Baltimore, with its rich history of brewing, should push for more such places, creating jobs in a growing industry. He intends to have his brewmaster train young people in crafting beer.

While it might seem a little strange to see big steel tanks where the altar used to be, this project will bring a dead Baltimore corner back to life. Customers will be able to go where no one has gone for years. They won’t be able to get communion, but they will be able to commune. The church will become a public space again, and that is something to celebrate, not mourn.

If the old ghosts of St. Michael’s flit about — the German immigrants who landed here ages ago — some might frown, some might cry. But I think most will be happy to know they can get a beer there.



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