Maureen Daly has fought many battles during her decades in the Catholic Church.

Along with others at her parish, St. Vincent de Paul, Daly has lobbied city government for inclusionary housing laws. She has battled for the ordination of women and full inclusion of LGBTQ people in church life. She has helped church members serve meals for the many unhoused people who congregate around the church, which sits in the shadow of the Shot Tower.

When St. Vincent’s beloved longtime pastor died several years ago, lay people gave homilies and led prayer services when a priest was not available to say Mass.

But now Daly and her fellow parishioners are fighting their hardest battle yet. On Sunday, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that 40 of 61 parishes in Baltimore City and surrounding areas could close due to declining attendance. St. Vincent de Paul, the city’s oldest Catholic parish church in continuous operation, is among those slated to be consolidated with other parishes.

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“I’m really grieving. It’s like a death in the family,” said Daly, 72, a lifelong Catholic. “If you can’t afford to staff us, don’t give us a priest. But let us go on. We have such good people.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore would close 40 churches and redraw the lines of parishes under a draft consolidation plan. (Courtesy of Archdiocese of Baltimore)

Across Baltimore, Catholics on Monday reacted with sorrow, anger and outrage to news that the archdiocese planned to shutter two-thirds of the churches. Many vowed to fight to keep open churches to which they and their families had belonged for decades.

“To close St. Ann now would be a sign of hopelessness,” said Mary Sewell, who has attended the East Baltimore church for more than 50 years. Although few file into the church’s pews, many benefit from the church’s food pantry and outreach efforts, she said.

Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, who is leading the parish restructuring efforts, said he understood that the potential closures would be devastating for many. But he said the consolidation is necessary for the church to remain sustainable.

“Once there were thousands of people supporting these churches, buildings and ministries,” he said. “Now there are dozens or hundreds. They’ve been heroic and made tremendous sacrifices. They have poured their hard-earned money, energies and talents into keeping these places going.”

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In the mid-1900s, Lewandowski said, there were more than 250,000 people worshipping at Baltimore’s Catholic churches. Today, about 5,000 to 8,000 attend Sunday Mass in the city, and many of them come from the suburbs.

Lewandowski stressed that the plan, called Seek the City to Come, has not been finalized. The proposal could still be changed depending on public outcry. Archbishop William Lori plans to attend two public listening sessions, one planned for April 25 at Archbishop Curley High School, and one on April 30 at Mount St. Joseph’s High School.

Archbishop William Lori reviews papers in his conference room on Sept. 28, 2023. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Lewandowski said the proposal is 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 heinous sexual, physical and emotional abuse by more than 100 members of the clergy.

The proposal is the result of 18 months of listening sessions and work groups, with a special emphasis on the needs of the city’s Black and Latinx communities, Lewandowski said. The plan consolidates churches based on geography and the needs of the parish communities.

The proposal includes three models for churches:

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Lewandowski said a final decision on the proposal would be released in June. The process of closing churches, moving programs and ultimately deconsecrating and selling church buildings, would likely take several years.

Catholic schools will remain open and will not be affected by the plan, said archdiocesan spokesman Christian Kendzierski in an email. “It is possible that if there is a school with a Church building — and that parish would merge — the Church building left may create an opportunity for the school to expand,” he said.

For Kelley Ray, an engaged parishioner at St. Matthew’s in Northeast Baltimore, the plan realistically addresses the challenges facing the church. Under the proposal, seven other congregations would join St. Matthew’s in the church’s building on Loch Raven Boulevard.

“I’m pragmatic about the whole thing,” said Ray. “If you’re a true faith community, you can be a community out on the street or under a tent.”

She added that St. Matthew’s has a larger parking lot and sanctuary than the other churches and is accessible to people with mobility issues. The churches in the area share similar values and have teamed up on initiatives before, she said.

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But Ray noted that the declining attendance — not just in Baltimore but across the country — should signal to church leaders that they need to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Attendance at Catholic, mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches has plummeted in the United States in recent decades.

Still, even those who are not Catholic, or who have left the church, expressed sorrow at the closing of neighborhood institutions.

Standing in the sunshine near Our Lady of Good Counsel church in Locust Point, Charles “Chuck” Walker, 82, said he and his seven siblings had all attended the church and attached school. Although Walker now identifies as an Episcopalian, he said he would miss the church.

“That pile of bricks has a lot of history,” Walker said. “It’s the oldest in the area.”

Our Lady of Good Counsel on East Fort Avenue is one of the dozens of city churches targeted for closure. The cornerstone was laid by its former pastor, Cardinal Gibbons, in 1889, when it served many Irish immigrants.
Our Lady of Good Counsel on East Fort Avenue in Locust Point is one of dozens of city churches that may be closed under a consolidation plan released by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The church is shown on April 14, 2024. (Norman Gomlak/The Baltimore Banner)

Cardinal James Gibbons laid and blessed the cornerstone of Our Lady of Good Counsel in 1889, and it once served the Irish Immigrants who lived nearby. Under the proposal, the church would close and congregants would shift to Holy Cross in Federal Hill. Another nearby church, St. Mary, Star of the Sea, is also slated to merge with Holy Cross.

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Many priests and congregations spent Sunday and Monday drafting plans to fight for their churches. At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Mount Washington, which serves a robust Filipino congregation, an emailed Sunday bulletin asked for support to stop a planned consolidation with the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland.

“We still need your generous support to continue our regular operations,” wrote the Rev. Bill Au, urging parishioners to continue to donate to the church. “Any significant drop of income in our present operational budget could be used by the Archdiocese to support the plan to merge the Shrine with the Cathedral.”

At St. Ann’s, longtime member and community activist Ralph E. Moore Jr. girded for a new battle to save his beloved church. Moore was part of a team of St. Ann’s members who successfully fought for the church to stay open in the 1990s.

When the church’s roof was in dire need of repair, Moore helped organize a penny drive, collecting 3 million pennies in five-gallon jugs to help cover the cost.

When parishioners realized there were no African American saints declared by the Roman Catholic Church, the St. Ann’s Social Justice Committee started advocating. Moore was part of a small group who traveled to Rome in October 2023 to push for the canonization of six Black Catholics.

Moore said the archdiocese operates “like a business as opposed to a place that deals with values and a system of beliefs.”

He pointed out that St. Ann’s has a bus stop directly in front of the church, making it easy for people who rely on public transportation to attend. St. Ann’s also sponsors many community outreach ministries, and the historic building celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents portions of North Baltimore, said she hoped that the archdiocese would work with city officials to allow deconsecrated churches to meet the needs of community members.

Ramos, who used to attend St. Vincent de Paul with her family, said she had stopped attending the church after the Supreme Court in 2022 reversed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion. Although Ramos felt at home among St. Vincent’s progressive congregation, she no longer wished to be affiliated with the broader Catholic Church, which has lobbied intensely against abortion rights.

Said Ramos: “We’re one of many families who decided to leave the Catholic Church.”

Banner reporters Jasmine Vaughn-Hall and Meredith Cohn contributed to this story.

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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