Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 25, 2024

Faith keeps broken neighborhood together

By Patrice Hutton | March 8, 2006

Six days a week Marjorie McDonald unlocks the front doors of St. Wenceslas Catholic Church. She sets out the candles, prepares bread and wine for communion, arranges the flowers, and keeps the basin's holy water filled. Several times a year she dresses the altar in kinte, a traditional African fabric.

"I keep the altar looking good so when God comes into his house it's not messy," McDonald said.

Fifty years ago, Dorothy Wallace would similarly enter through the double doors of St. Wenceslas, jar in hand, to dutifully retrieve the holy water that her mother requested. The family lived in the East Baltimore neighborhood, around the corner from St. Wenceslas, and practiced Methodism, but were still greeted every quarter hour by the ringing of the church's bells.

The bells of St. Wenceslas have been ringing for over 135 years, beginning when the church was founded by immigrants from Bohemia and continuing through the church's transformation to a predominately African American congregation.

"The Bohemian immigrants brought with them their faith and a desire to have a church that mirrored churches back in Europe," said Peter Lyons, priest of St. Wenceslas.

About 40 years ago, as the composition of East Baltimore grew increasingly African American, the St. Wenceslas membership began to reflect the change.

"The church was two and a half blocks from where I lived. Our neighbors were Czech, German, Irish and Polish, but not so much black," Wallace said.

Wallace's errands for holy water soon transformed into a conversion to the Catholic faith. For a while, Wallace was the only African American member of the congregation.

"It didn't bother me that I was the only black, because it was my neighborhood people," Wallace said. "After I became Catholic, the black people in the neighborhood would see me going to St. Wenceslas and also start coming."

Father Lyons, the parish's white priest, can relate to Wallace's place among the minority.

"It is not a problem to have a white pastor," Lyons said. "The relationships between the white and black members are very positive. Many of the white members who have moved out of the neighborhood and are no longer part of the church might not have been as comfortable with it, but the ones who attend are."

All members--from the African Americans who sing in the Czech choir to the Czech descendents who participate in the gospel choir--have formed a congregation bound by a common faith.

"It's so open, warm, and loving, like a big family," McDonald said. "We get together and worship together and enjoy each other."

When Wallace joined the church in the 1950s, the congregation was significantly larger than it is today. Back then, Sunday morning's first mass began at 5:30 a.m. and subsequent masses occurred every hour until noon, led by a total of ten priests. Church goers would begin lining up at an hour before the noon mass to assure a place in the pews.

Today, many pews remain unfilled at both of the Sunday morning masses. Also noticeable is the church's lack of male membership, made evident by the number of single women shushing toddlers or picking up their baby's pacifiers.

"Part of our effort is to bring more men into our community," Lyons said. St. Wenceslas recently formed a boy's club to draw more young men into the church.

"It's harder to start with older men who may be incarcerated or addicted or absent, so we're trying to start with the younger ones," Lyons added.

Church members, however, are not intimidated by the area's reputation.

Even after McDonald had her front windows shot out, with bullets nearly hitting her grandchildren, she continued to cross the street to attend mass.

"I never stopped going even when they were shooting. God would keep me safe," McDonald said.

"The neighborhood has no bearing on us whatsoever," Wallace said. "They respect us. There's no crime that scares us from coming out the door."

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