Cover story -- Baltimore
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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

Spirit-fueled work on the margins

Catholics bring islands of hope to blighted Baltimore


Dozens of Catholics wrapped in warm coats, hats down around their ears and scarves around their necks, sang their way out of St. Vincent de Paul Church into the dark, cold night to the north side of the building. Minutes later dry kindling in a huge, sculptured cast-bronze Holy Spirit urn sent flames soaring into the city sky.

Beyond the patio and parish parking lot: downtown Baltimore on a March night -- traffic, city lights and noise. As the Easter Vigil began a police car, sirens wailing, hurtled down the street.

Poverty-stricken Baltimore, with its 14,000 empty or abandoned houses, is the small city murder capital of the United States. Baltimore, per 100,000 of population, has six times more murders than New York, three times more than Chicago, and also outranks Washington and Detroit.

If statistical averages held true this Easter weekend in Baltimore, there would be two murders before the 12-hour vigil ended at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

Statistics held true. Two murders were reported. By the time Holy Week concluded, Baltimoreans could anticipate five murders, 14 shootings, 72 robberies, 116 aggravated assaults, 107 burglaries, 299 larcenies, 119 auto thefts, 340 misdemeanor narcotics arrests, and 105 felony narcotics arrests: the city’s 2005 weekly average.

Arms raised, voice booming the Easter Vigil opening prayers, Msgr. Richard Lawrence brought scriptural reason to the fiery glow, and led the way as the crowd sang itself back inside.

Lawrence, pastor for 32 years at the city’s oldest Catholic parish church (1840), knows what makes Baltimore, and his downtown corner of it, dangerous: crack cocaine. “That’s what did in our community,” he said, “that and disorganized crime.” Then he added, wryly, “We’d probably be better off if we had organized crime.”

On the opposite side of the church from where the Easter vigil crowd gathered is a pocket park. The homeless occupy it. Their blankets and quilts were strung along its railings in the night air, drying from the morning’s rain shower.

When a Baltimore mayor decided to close pocket parks to drive the homeless elsewhere, that wasn’t good enough for the St. Vincent’s pastor and community. The church acquired the park and kept it open. A church that daily feeds the homeless understands their plight, that even a park is better than nowhere. Better yet, the police can’t run the homeless off church property.

Unemployment in the city is high (it hasn’t helped that Ford just closed its truck plant). Forty years ago Baltimore was a manufacturing city and an active port. Not anymore: Now, it’s mainly a service industry city.

Current Maryland state statistics give the city of Baltimore a 7 percent unemployment rate. But statistics are always up for debate. At a time when the 2000 U.S. census said Baltimore had 11 percent unemployed, the city health department’s figure was 17.8 percent.

In general, the population of 650,000 has held steady for five years after dropping from 900,000-plus between 1960 and 2000. The percentage of vacant or abandoned houses is increasing. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance reports that 7.5 percent (some 14,100 houses) are empty, up from 5.5 percent in 2000. Ironically, Baltimore health department estimates reveal some 3,000 men, women and children are homeless each night. By other estimates, half the young adult male population is either incarcerated, out on bond or on parole. The most haunting statistic: The city is home to an estimated 60,000 drug addicts. Thousands of them annually headed into prison -- and back out again. ( See accompanying story.)

Between 1980 and 2001, Maryland’s prison population tripled (7,731 to 23,752). Almost 10,000 offenders return annually to the population; 56 percent of them to Baltimore.

Helping on the margins

The Catholic stake in helping on the margins is constant.

Gerald Cooper was released last year. He is in his 50s. During incarceration, he told NCR, he lost contact with his family. He had no home or house to be released to. The second day out he found Christopher Place, an 18-month residential program for 60 to 64 men a year, run by Catholic Charities of the Baltimore archdiocese. “I found what I wanted: welcome, acceptance and understanding, clothing, a place to lay my head, to learn my responsibilities as a husband and father, to find a reason for a future,” Cooper said. He also found job training -- Christopher Place’s reason for being. Cooper now cooks at a local college, but there are always new clouds on the horizon.

The state transportation department has proposed curtailing some of the Baltimore area’s bus routes. People are protesting that low-income workers will be disproportionately affected by the cuts. The route that includes the college where Cooper works is one of those proposed for the ax.

On the west side of the city, Capuchin Franciscan Fr. John Harvey, like Lawrence, points to crack cocaine as a key source of the city’s woes. Harvey served in Baltimore from 1977 to 1986 when the city was steadily declining. Then he left on a six-year assignment and on his return 13 years ago found a much worsened condition. “Crack cocaine had come in and really changed the nature of the city and society.”

Harvey’s neighborhood of three parishes (St. Martin, St. Peter the Apostle and St. Jerome), a blighted area of boarded-up houses and decayed accommodations, was rapidly losing population -- and so were the parishes.

In 1994, Cardinal William Keeler and then-Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard (the Josephite who was the archdiocese’s urban vicar and who is now bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla.) told 16 inner-city parishes to examine their situation. Under Harvey’s careful ministering, and a huge “parish” council of 21 members, the three parishes in the intervening years have come together as Transfiguration Catholic Community.

Despite the maintenance expense, the three parishes all have their parish plants and a Mass at each of their churches on Sunday. St. Martin has Capuchin volunteers living in the parish house, young people spending a year in service; Mercy Corps volunteers live in St. Peter’s parish house; and a group of Xaverian brothers are at St. Jerome.

Parishioners have cross-pollinated, no longer tied solely to their “home” parish, but attending Mass at any of the three churches. In the growing unity, Transfiguration’s parish council has reduced its membership to 15.

Harvey notes another change. “I think the city has begun to draw people back to Baltimore,” he said. “The stadiums are built, there’s the Inner Harbor, so the housing stock begins to rise. Martin Luther King Boulevard was like a divide, not much happening on the west side. That has now been breached and I see change begin to take a more rapid pace.”

The University of Maryland has expanded across the boulevard. A large parking garage is opening. Physical signs of hope, but a hope that still cannot mask the harsher reality of addiction.

Into prison or treatment

Lawrence tells the story of the addicted street denizen who would break into St.Vincent, sleep in the boiler room, and use the sacristy as a toilet. Lawrence told the maintenance man, “ ‘Next time don’t wake him up, call the police.’ We got him locked up for breaking and entering and could run his record and found out he was on French leave from the Veterans Hospital. Did a whole lot of drinking and most of his brains are fried. At trial his father is there with him, immediately recognizable as father and son. But the son looks 90 and the dad looks 60.”

The priest continued, “The judge with a wink in his eye in all directions, sentences him to 10 years hard labor at the Maryland State Penitentiary, then agrees to suspend the sentence if he voluntarily returns to the Veterans Hospital.”

The man knew, said Lawrence, “that he was going to spend his next nights at one of two places. That’s what we need to do for our addicts. Go to prison or go into treatment. Choose one. That’s why I want to double what we’re spending on enforcement, round up the dealers and jail them, and quadruple what we’re spending on treatment, so there’s true treatment on demand.”

Catholics nationwide who are city-oriented and involved know ministry on the margins, and know the folks who do it, even if they don’t know Baltimore. The work: transitional housing; job training; meals and clothing; post-recovery support for addicts; residential programs; one-stop centers for children and families. The people are parish volunteers, college students giving a year of service, retirees and second career folk, relying on a foundation of nuns, brothers and priests. Unsung heroes, folks who don’t have to be doing this -- this is mission, not employment.

In Baltimore, the cooperation among the Catholic agencies is a supple mutual aid network. Between Catholic agencies and other city nonprofits the cooperation is impressive.

When the mayor’s office created a Baltimore Citywide Ex-Offender Task Force the involved organizations, agencies and groups filled almost two pages typed single-space: churches and temples, city and state agencies, from Healthcare for the Homeless to the Legal Aid Bureau; from the NAACP to Prison Fellowship Ministries; more than 100 organizations in all, with a strong Catholic representation.

One was Catholic Charities, whose Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen provides close to 800 homeless or poor people with a sit-down-and-be-waited-on lunch each day. Mary Anne Connolly, Catholic Charities’ community services administrator, oversees Our Daily Bread and Christopher Place.

The Christopher Place will double its numbers when it relocates to a new downtown building not far from St. Vincent Church (and almost adjacent, apparently, to a soon-to-open Howard Stern night spot). There is also a walk-in St. Jude’s Employment Center at Our Daily Bread. The existing Christopher Place, said Connolly, will become expanded quarters for My Sister’s Place, residential job training for women.

Catholics cooperating

Examples of inter-Catholic cooperation, said Connolly, include St. Jude’s Center providing some job placement services for Marian House, and Christopher Place’s men doing the heavy lifting, delivery and pick-up for Caroline Center’s upholstery business.

Marian House, a School Sisters of Notre Dame and Sisters of Mercy joint project, provides transitional housing in a safe, structured environment for 29 homeless or previously incarcerated women.

There’s education and counseling, an employment program and support in a handsome building with pleasant rooms not unlike an upmarket apartment building. A sculpture garden exterior has four impressive marble caryatids of strong and determined black women, Patience, Honesty, Trust and Integrity.

Yet when one former resident, Sheila, arrived “terrified,” her possessions in two black plastic bags, she said what she noticed first was a warm, welcoming smile.

There are rules: no drink or drugs on the premises; women have to be present for the evening meal; work is assigned and rotated. “It’s a bit like a convent” in that regard, said Sister of St. Joseph Margi Savage, who joined the 23-year-old organization a year ago to work on finding permanent housing for the residents.

Not two miles away, Caroline Center exists “on the very site” where the School Sisters of Notre Dame settled after arriving from Bavaria in 1847, said Sr. Pat McLaughlin. “This building was our novitiate.” In 1995 “we reinvented ourselves,” she said, “saw that jobs and job training was a great need in Baltimore.”

The program takes in 60 women three times a year for 15 weeks of employment skills training -- communication skills, basic math, computers. There’s a full-time social worker, individualized counseling, and the chance to become certified nursing assistants, certified childcare providers, pharmacy technicians -- or upholsterers.

Re-upholstery is developing into a spinoff business that by 2007 may be putting funds back into the center. The upholstery idea came from a board member who had been in the business for 45 years. The sisters pay McLaughlin’s salary, the center otherwise is funded by fundraising and occasional city contracts.

One-stop, one-shop

Those working on society’s frontlines rarely talk about themselves. Only in casual conversation does one learn that Ann Cunningham, who directs Caroline Center’s re-upholstery operation, was a high-ranking corporate information technology director who felt there was more to life. Or learn it was during the December 2002 funeral for Philip Berrigan of Baltimore’s Jonah House that pastoral associate Savage, now at Marian House, decided to work again with the marginalized.

All these activities, like the Julie Center that Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Bobbie English directs, are the church in the inner city, responding to immediate problems. Julie Center (named for Sisters of Notre Dame founder St. Julie Billiart) was started in 1975 by sisters and community folk “as a sort of one-stop, one-shop community center where people could resolve their problems without getting chased around from one city agency to another.”

From that, with a doctor and nurse from nearby Johns Hopkins hospital, the center developed a health promoters program. These days nursing students are on hand. A raft of eviction notices took Julie Center into low-income housing (now spun off into Jubilee Baltimore). Programs built up: an arts program for seniors, parenting programs, and community organizing, such as pressuring the school system for better facilities for the kids. The “one-stop” is now part of the local Full Service Community School.

Several congregations, Mercys, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and Sisters of Bon Secours, have just “graduated” their first class of 22 fifth graders into sixth grade in their new Sisters Academy middle school. “We’re educating leaders,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Delia Dowling. The academy operates on the Nativity model, with sponsors for each child, and supporters who see their “contributions going directly to the child.”

All these agencies and more are out on the grant and fundraising trail. NCR asked community organizer Xaverian Br. Jerry O’Leary if Baltimore Catholics ever weary of giving and actively supporting. He sees little sign of it. “We’ve been hitting parishes for support and working with a diocesan group for letter-writing and involvement in bills for inclusionary [mixed income] affordable housing. And the people respond.” Baltimore City Council recently passed a resolution creating a committee to work on the possibility of creating legislation for such housing.

From the 38-year-old Franciscan Center in the sisters’ former convent/school building, Franciscan Sr. Barbara Barry and two colleagues hit the parish talks trail. “People look at what the center is doing and they feel God calls them to respond to the needs of the people.”

With 23 staff and 80 to 90 volunteers, the center provides a hot meal to some 600 people a day, operates a clothing center, specializes in services for those with HIV/AIDS, and offers emergency services for people facing eviction or heat cut off.

Like much of life itself, working on the margins requires a spirit-fueled energy to keep slogging away.

There’s breathing space for those with a mission on the margins. Religious sisters, brothers and the Capuchins live in community. Other refreshment includes sessions at the Mercy-founded Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women; or folks can drop by the walk-in House of Prayer that Jesuit Fr. Frank McGauley opened on East Madison Street.

St. Vincent’s pastor Lawrence, who plows away on local problems, pushing and politicking, makes a contribution almost unique now among city churches. He celebrates Mass at St. Vincent at Saturday midnight (actually 12:15 a.m.) for folks coming off or heading to their late shifts at the hospitals, hotels, police departments and other jobs.

A different sort of downtown outreach, but in the same holy spirit.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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