By third grade, St. Ann Church on Greenmount Avenue became a “savior” and “shelter” for Mary Sewell, who was part of the generation of Black kids bused to white public schools in the 1960s.

Sewell felt like an outsider faced with an “us” and “them” demeanor at these schools. Then her mother enrolled her and her siblings in the parish school at St. Ann in East Baltimore and she felt accepted by the other students and the nuns in their habits.

And for over 50 years, the church is where she has stayed to practice her religion. Now she’s unsure how much longer she’ll be able to sit in those wooden pews.

Mary Sewell is a longtime parishioner at St. Ann's on Greenmount Avenue, which is expected to close under a reorganization plan introduced by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Mary Sewell is a longtime parishioner at St. Ann's on Greenmount Avenue, which is set to close under a reorganization plan adopted by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Uncertainty also looms for parishioners on the other side of town at St. Gregory the Great, a predominantly Black Catholic church in Sandtown-Winchester. Small groups of parishioners dressed in their Sunday best recently gathered at the altar, the corners of their blouses and collared shirts accessorized with bright yellow stickers that said “United St. Gregory’s As One” in bold, black letters. They posed for pictures surrounded by gold and silver vases filled with flowers to capture the days leading up to the church’s 140th anniversary.

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“It’s been very bittersweet knowing there won’t be 141,” said Roxanne Pattillo, who at 52 has only known St. Gregory as her main place of worship.

Members of predominantly Black Catholic churches such as St. Ann and St. Gregory are bracing for big changes as the Archdiocese of Baltimore moves ahead with a sweeping reorganization to address declining attendance and the increasingly prohibitive cost of maintaining older church buildings.

Of 16 parishes identified by the archdiocese as predominantly Black, nine are being merged with other parishes and closing their churches under the archdiocese’s Seek the City plan. That will leave six remaining Black Catholic parishes, with one other church being kept as an additional worship site. This comes as archdiocesan leaders move to reduce the total number of parishes in Baltimore and surrounding areas from 61 to 23, while closing half of 59 worship sites.

St. Ann, with a history that spans more than 150 years, is expected to close its doors and merge with St. Francis Xavier, which is located a mile away and is one of the oldest African American Catholic churches in the country. St. Gregory would also close under the plan, merging along with a couple other parishes with St. Bernardine on Edmondson Avenue.

While parishioners from both St. Ann and St. Gregory will be assigned to other predominantly Black parishes, members are heartbroken to leave behind the legacies, traditions and relationships they’ve built at their home churches and are unsure how worshipping with new groups of people will turn out. Black parishioners are not homogeneous, they say, and neither are the ways they worship.

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The newly formed parishes will work with their new pastors on blending formation activities, ministries and sacramental records, said Yvonne Wenger, a director of public relations with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Ministry leaders will also align the role of pastoral staff, parish councils and other leadership roles with the new parishes. But nobody will know right away what that might mean for a church’s personality.

Roxanne Pattillo stands outside St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Sunday, June 16, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe / The Baltimore Banner) (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Some aren’t ready to accept a closed church as their fate.

“We’re going down swinging,” said Sewell, who doesn’t have a problem personally with St. Francis Xavier, but doesn’t like how the archdiocese is seemingly directing people where to go.

Sewell added that parishioners are weighing all their options. St. Ann has a culture of advocacy, including leading an effort to get the Catholic Church to recognize the first African American saint.

She also thinks the archdiocese is using unfair criteria, such as attendance, in deciding which parishes will close. St. Ann feeds the hungry and provides additional assistance that doesn’t necessarily translate to more people in the pews, she said. But this work is necessary and part of building a community, she added.

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In a recent interview, Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski stressed that “none of these decisions were easy.” But he said St. Francis Xavier’s historic importance took precedence.

“When you look at St. Francis Xavier, the first black Catholic parish in the country, that’s where we have to be,” he said. “That history is particularly sacred. I look at that church as important as the Basilica, which is the first cathedral in the country.”

Tony Fair, who has attended St. Gregory for more than 40 years, said the church is where his mother sang in the soprano section of the choir, and where after Mass they would often invite fellow parishioners to their home for brunch. The church also has built a stake in the community with its soup kitchen, food pantry and a 12-step program for those with substance use disorders. Every Sunday is like family day because of the close-knit relationships with other parishioners, he said. Now, they worry all that will be lost.

What the archdiocese is doing is going to “be the failure of the Catholic Church in Baltimore,” he said.

Fair is saddened by the coming change and said he has considered leaving the Catholic Church.

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He doesn’t plan to attend St. Bernardine because, he said, it felt unwelcoming and like he was getting the “cold shoulder” when he visited several years ago. He hasn’t been back.

Tony Fair stands outside St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Sunday, June 16, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe / The Baltimore Banner) (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

At least a dozen people have raised their concerns about the closures to City Councilman James Torrence, whose district includes St. Gregory the Great and St. Peter Claver, which will be maintained by the archbishop as an “additional worship site.” Torrence expects to take the feedback about how community needs will continue to be met back to the archdiocese.

“When things go away, the city also has to step in to supplement what was there that was community-based,” Torrence said.

Archdiocesan officials said they considered several factors when choosing which parishes to merge and which churches to close, including whether a parish has a school, if churches were landmark properties and the history of the church, and disinvestment among parishioners or in the neighborhoods in the area.

A preliminary archdiocesan plan called for closing St. Veronica’s in Cherry Hill, which is predominantly Black, and maintaining a worship site at the Cherry Hill Town Center, which is owned by Catholic Charities. Another visit by the archdiocese and a reiteration of its history helped spare the church, said Lewandowski.

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Ralph Moore, a longtime St. Ann parishioner, thinks the archdiocese should keep Black churches open given the Catholic Church’s past issues with race.

For much of U.S. history, Black Catholics have been members of predominantly white churches, said Matthew Cressler, author of “Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration.”

Baltimore’s Catholic parishes are not excluded from the list of churches that practiced segregation on Sundays, leaving Black attendees to sit in balconies or the back pews and unable to touch the same holy water as their white counterparts.

“We don’t deserve it. and the other Black churches don’t deserve it. … They owe us reparations,” said Moore.

Moore said he is concerned that financial considerations are taking precedence over the Catholic faith, with the archdiocese acting too much like a business. He also believes that the reorganization plan punishes Black Catholics instead of showing appreciation for them and their contributions.

As they brace for widespread change, many Black parishioners are reflecting on the roles of their churches in their communities and their relationship with Catholicism.

Lewandowski said he’s very aware that old wounds were reopened throughout the reorganization and that the goal was not to “retreat from the city of Baltimore, but to be a better church for the city of Baltimore.”

“We want to be a very strong neighborhood church again, and that means being a strong neighborhood church in the neighborhoods where many of our African American brothers and sisters live,” he said. “So I would say that we will be fewer, but hopefully bigger and stronger.”

A 140th anniversary banner is fastened to the front handrail of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Sunday, June 16, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe / The Baltimore Banner) (Wesley Lapointe/The Baltimore Banner)

Pattillo, who heads the women’s committee at St. Gregory, said its been hard to keep parishioners motivated since the church’s planned closure was announced. For the parish’s 140th anniversary, members will celebrate Mass at the church and then head over to the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore County, the first successful religious order for women of color, for food and music. She’s going to miss the annual Mass outside in September when people can walk up or listen to the service from their windows. And then there’s the fellowship from the women’s committee, which also found different ways to raise money for the church, as well.

She is relying on other parishioners to help her make a decision about where she will worship next. Like Fair, she knows no place will ever be like St. Gregory on a Sunday.

For now, they’re soaking in what time they have left and focusing on appreciating what they and those who came before them were able to accomplish in 140 years.

Said Fair, “Let’s love up on each other until the last day.”