More than 1,000 people packed into Archbishop Curley High School Thursday evening to speak out on a proposal to close a significant portion of the city’s Catholic churches due to declining attendance.

They spoke about the food pantries and youth groups, Masses and sacraments, Christmas bazaars and summer festivals rooted in parishes slated for closure. But mostly they spoke of the deep bonds they shared with their fellow parishioners and the churches they had attended for decades.

Bobby Jackson, a member of St. Ann’s, a 150-year-old church with a predominantly Black congregation, said closing the church “would be like ripping the heart out of the community we serve.”

A member of the Holy Rosary Church watches the presentation during Seek the City Night on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)
Exterior of Archbishop Curley High School as attendees enter on Seek the City Night, 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)
A member of the Holy Rosary Church holds a flag for their parish up to his chest during a presentation at Seek the City Night on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

The speakers were taking part in a listening session organized by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in response to its Seek the City to Come proposal, which would shrink the number of parishes in Baltimore City and select nearby suburbs from 61 to 21. It would reduce the number of worship sites, or churches where Mass is celebrated, from 59 to 26.

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Parishes would be combined largely based on geography, a sticking point for many Baltimore Catholics, as each parish generally attracts like-minded people. Some parishes are very conservative; others are more liberal. Some are predominantly Black, Latinx or Filipino.

Attendance at Catholic churches has plummeted over the past few decades. In the mid-20th century, more than 250,000 Catholics worshipped in the city; today about 5,000 to 8,000 attend services and many of them live in the surrounding counties.

Yet Baltimore’s Catholic community appeared vital and passionate Thursday evening as cars spilled out of Curley’s parking lot and filled the nearby neighborhood. About 400 people squeezed into the cafeteria of Curley, an all-boys Catholic high school in Northeast Baltimore, and another 700 gathered in the auditorium. The majority of attendees were over 60, and many spoke of spending decades volunteering at and donating to their church.

The crowd grumbled as Archdiocesan officials launched into a presentation about the proposal to close and consolidate parishes. “We know how to read,” one man muttered.

The audience within the auditorum of Archbishop Curley High School during the Seek the City Presentation on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)
A woman holds her hands in contemplation during presentations at Seek the City Night on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, the vicar of Baltimore and one of the architects of the plan, said that the goal was to create a sustainable church and be able to attract new converts to the faith.

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“The group of people coming to our churches is getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “We don’t have any young people coming after us in many of our parishes. At one point, all of these churches were filled to overflowing.”

Attendees shouted down a suggestion that parish groups gather to discuss the proposal, saying they wanted to maximize their time to offer feedback. Facilitators switched gears to bring forward parish representatives, but before they began, a man in a wheelchair rolled to the front of the room to decry the lack of accommodations for people with disabilities at many churches.

One of the largest and most spirited groups waved Polish flags and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the name of Holy Rosary, a Polish parish in Fells Point. The church is not slated for closure, but the archdiocese’s proposal would move several other congregations, including a Hispanic congregation, into Holy Rosary.

Dorothy Rostkowski, a parishioner of Holy Rosary, began her remarks with a short prayer in Polish. She questioned the biblical underpinnings of the archdiocese’s decision to close churches due to declining attendance.

Dorothy Rostkowski, representing Holy Rosary Church, presents her comments at Seek the City Night on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

“When did Jesus tell his disciples that if they didn’t manage to attract 700 people, he wouldn’t give his Sermon on the Mount?” she asked.

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A listening session in Spanish is planned for the Latinx community on Monday at 7 p.m. Monday at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Southeast Baltimore, but many people at Thursday’s meeting spoke of the ways in which the recent surge of Latin American immigrants has revitalized their churches.

Rebecca Bankard said her church, Our Lady of Fatima in Southeast Baltimore, was struggling to attract members a few years ago, but is now overflowing with devoted parishioners from Latin America.

“We have grown into a thriving and vibrant parish,” she said, explaining how the church now holds bilingual masses and rosary prayer sessions outside from May to September each year.

Many parishioners said that if their church closes, the surrounding neighborhoods would have only one Catholic church in close proximity.

Sharon Johnson-Stewart, a parishioner at St. Ann’s, detailed the rich history of the church on Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore. A sea captain built the church to fulfill a promise he made to God during a storm. More than a century later, it was where the archdiocese ordained its Black priest. Today, it is hub for community action programs as well as a safe haven for students at the neighboring Mother Seton Academy, she said.

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Sharon Johnson-Stewart from St. Ann’s Parish provides comment during Seek the City Night on 4/25/2024 in Baltimore, MD. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

“Thousands of dollars have been spent on consultants during the Seek the City initiative,” Johnson-Stewart said. “Would that money have been better spent on helping out parishes instead?”

A third listening session is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30, at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Guilford.

A final decision on the proposal is slated to be unveiled in June. The process of consolidating parishes, deconsecrating and selling churches would likely take several years to complete.

Church officials say the closures are not related to the archdiocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy in September, before a state law went into effect allowing more survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits. Last year, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General released a 456-page report outlining decades of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by more than 100 members of the clergy.

Many attendees called out the archdiocese for proposing to close churches in the city and less affluent areas of surrounding counties, rather than wealthy suburbs. They also questioned Lewandowski’s remarks about seeking converts among people who do not belong to a church.

“Frankly, timing could not be worse for such a lofty endeavor,” said Barbara Pivonski of St. Clare’s in Essex. “We as practicing Catholics are tasked with enticing people to either return to their Catholic faith or to consider joining the faith. Given the lawsuits, bankruptcy and now the closing of 70% of churches in lower-income areas, it is hard to have that conversation with anyone.”

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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