The phones are ringing in the church office, and the volunteers can hardly keep up.
St. Benedict has celebrated Mass in Southwest Baltimore for 130 years, but the parish faces the end. There are grief and anger — and questions. Lots of questions.
What about the gifts in the sanctuary from all the old families? What about the annual sale of “Baltimore’s best coddies.” Isn’t there something, anything, the people on the phone can do?
“Call or write the archdiocese,” Verdell “V” Kelsaw tells them. “We don’t know what else.”
Parishioners are reeling from the abrupt dismissal of their longtime pastor. The Archdiocese of Baltimore dismissed him after The Baltimore Banner found he had paid a settlement over an allegation of fraud and sexual assault. Then, the archdiocese cited a shortage of priests for a decision to end St. Benedict’s worship services.
Some church members are furious with The Banner and the archdiocese; others are resigned to mourning. Around the Millhill neighborhood, too, emotions are raw.
Judy Cordes lives across the street and worries that an empty sanctuary and parking lot will attract crime.
“I’m scared of what’s going to happen with no one there,” she said.
In these streets almost everyone has been to St. Benedict for something or other: housewares from the flea market, a winter coat for a daughter, a Butterball turkey for Thanksgiving. The archdiocese pledged to continue these ministries even without worship services. But can the historic church carry on as a soup kitchen? A few men chatted about it around the corner.
“People are going to go hungry,” Larry Massey said. “You got guys who rely on that.”
“Why not replace [the pastor] instead of closing it?” asked Patrick, who gave the last name of “O.”
In a community beset by addiction, blight, poverty and feelings of abandonment, where the only laundromat closed recently, St. Benedict has meant stability. The church food pantry feeds about 100 families a month, according to the parish. Church members have walked the streets to pick up trash. They have delivered little chains of protection, the “Miraculous Medal,” to sex workers on Wilkens Avenue.
Leading this urban evangelism has been their pastor of 39 years: the Rev. Paschal Morlino. When the down on their luck wandered into the church, parishioners said, Morlino was always handing them cash from his pocket, or warming them a plate from the kitchen, or offering them a place to sit and rest when they drifted off on heroin.
“I call it the ‘Baltimore nod,’” said Kelsaw, the office volunteer who also lives across the street. “He would say, ‘Someday, something will get through to them.’”
These moments of charity built Morlino’s reputation as Baltimore’s urban monk and brought him a devoted following. That’s made the events of recent weeks all the harder.
In the summer, former parishioner Kathy Durm-St. Amant shared attorneys’ letters in which her late friend accused Morlino of rape and fraud. The Banner found Morlino had paid the man $200,000 to quietly settle the allegations. The settlement included a nondisclosure agreement.
When reporters asked Morlino about the settlement, he acknowledged paying the man in 2018 but denied he had assaulted or defrauded him. Reporters asked the archdiocese about the matter, too. Within 24 hours, the archdiocese dismissed Morlino because he had not disclosed the settlement.
The church is owned and operated by the Benedictine monks in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The Saint Vincent Archabbey there and the Archdiocese of Baltimore issued statements saying neither knew about the settlement. Morlino has since returned to the archabbey, and he has not returned messages.
St. Benedict parishioners were stunned. Some held out hope that Morlino’s name would be cleared or a new pastor assigned to them.
Instead, on Nov. 4, the archdiocese announced an end to worship services.
“The difficult decision was made based on the limited number of clergy available for this ministry,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
That same day, the archdiocese said it had received a second allegation against Morlino. In this instance, the pastor was accused of an act of child sexual abuse around 1993. Archdiocesan officials said they referred the allegation to law enforcement and opened their own investigation.
“This matter is in an early stage of investigation, and thus no determination of credibility has been made,” according to an archdiocesan statement.
Morlino denies the allegation, according to the statement. He has not been charged with a crime, nor does his name appear in the recent attorney general’s report on the history of sex abuse within the church. Archdiocesan officials have provided no other details about the alleged abuse in 1993. And the person who made the accusation remains unknown.
The identity of Durm-St. Amant’s late friend, however, is widely known to parishioners. The Banner does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they give their consent.
Many parishioners said they don’t believe the man. They point to the fact that he maintained an acquaintance with Morlino for many years after the first alleged assault. And that he threatened to sue the pastor only after Morlino removed him from operating a church fundraiser.
“Nowadays, I guess you’re guilty unless proven innocent,” Kelsaw said.
The archdiocese and archabbey, meanwhile, are pointing fingers over who’s responsible for assigning a new priest to St. Benedict.
The archdiocese has pointed out the Benedictines own and operate the church. The monks, however, say they told the archdiocese a decade ago that they had too few priests to send a pastor after Morlino. The archabbey’s position: It has returned responsibility for pastoral care of St. Benedict Church to the archdiocese.
There should have been a transition plan, said Clare Basil, whose family worships at St. Benedict. After all, Morlino is 85.
“What’s insane is how the archdiocese is adding insult to injury,” she said. “This falls squarely on the archdiocese shoulders. They’ve known the archabbey would be unable to provide another pastor for 10 years.”
She wants the archdiocese to assign a temporary pastor, say, for a year. That would give parishioners at least a chance to find a new priest.
The archdiocese and archabbey both committed to continue the ministries at St. Benedict, including the food pantry, a Catholic radio station, a home school, theater, basketball camp and more. Basil, for one, feels these programs won’t last without families coming to worship on Sundays and donating to the church.
“It’s not a sustainable solution,” she said. “It’s just an empty kind of pat on the head to ease the blow.”
The final Mass at St. Benedict is scheduled for Tuesday night. Then parishioners will drive the visiting priest to the airport to catch his flight home to Uganda. After that, who knows?
For now, the phones continue to ring in the church office. The panhandlers are still asking for the pastor. And there was a bigger crowd than usual at Mass on Wednesday night.
They prayed for their church; they prayed for Morlino. They read Isaiah 5, with its message of finding faith in a barren vineyard.
Afterword, a few parishioners lingered in the pews to share their grief. They remembered life’s moments here, the baptisms and weddings. The sanctuary dressed up for Christmas.
They smiled, and they cried. They talked until the lights went out.