From his jail cell window, Ant Lee could see that the steeple of St. James the Less, his childhood beacon, had vanished from the skyline.

He had been away from his bunk on March 28, 2020, when a bolt of lightning struck, sparking a fire that devoured the ornate spire that had towered over Baltimore for more than a century. It was one of several bad turns of fate to befall the architecturally significant former Catholic church that year.

For much of its 150 years, St. James the Less shared the block at Eager and Aisquith streets with a private Catholic girls’ school attended by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The two Catholic institutions anchored the neighborhood around the Latrobe Homes public housing complex, where Lee grew up. By the time he was released from incarceration in 2021, the church and the school were empty.

“It took the soul out of the area,” Lee said.

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St. James the Less, which was sold in the 1980s, offers a tale of the promise and the pitfalls of offloading historic and expensive-to-maintain religious properties. Last week, the Archdiocese of Baltimore finalized a plan to reduce the number of worship sites from 59 to 30.

Weeds and roofing material scatter the sidewalk around Ant Lee in front of the former church site of St. James the Less and Urban Bible Fellowship. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Archdiocese leaders say the decision to close about half the Catholic churches in the city and parts of Baltimore County is a necessary financial course correction. Years of dwindling attendance have left congregations struggling to keep up with the costs of maintenance. Church officials say the closure and consolidation plan, called Seek the City to Come, 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.

The archdiocese plans to deconsecrate the buildings it is closing, The Catholic Review reported, but each parish will decide whether it wants to sell, lease or repurpose the site. Officials said it could take a decade for some properties to change hands but that all sites would be cared for until then and available for baptisms, funerals and weddings.

“The announcement of the decisions leads us into a transition phase that actually is different for a number of parishes,” said Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, who has overseen the consolidation plan. The archdiocese envisions a six-month process as it reduces the number of parishes from 61 to 23. A facilities and properties office within the archdiocese focuses on property management, he said.

What happens next is tricky. Small congregations hoping to buy places of worship could find it hard to secure financing. But some deeds for former Catholic buildings include special covenants that limit what the structures can be used for in their afterlife.

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Stephen Ferrandi and Barb Bindon operate one of the region’s most active firms for religious real estate transactions, PraiseBuildings Religious Property Brokerage and Trinity Church Management. They said they sell on average 12 such properties each year. Most show signs of benign neglect that are costly to address, they said, and some are derelict and require a complete overhaul.

“Church buildings make really bad investments,” Ferrandi said, especially when the number of Americans identifying themselves as unaffiliated with an organized religion is growing.

The buildings often are expensive to heat, cool and maintain, and they no longer have any hope of drawing the number of congregants they were designed to hold.

“A few bucks on a collection plate doesn’t even cover insurance for the building,” he said.

Some religious sites attract interest from developers for their valuable land or rare parking space. The trendy taproom Ministry of Brewing now occupies the former St. Michael’s Church building a little more than a mile from St. James.

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Other churches become the new home of another denomination. That’s what happened to St. James after the Catholic church left in 1986. For decades, a family-run Christian church proudly maintained it as a pillar for the neighborhood and helped raise a generation of children like Lee.

But since 2020 one challenge after another has threatened the high Victorian Gothic-influenced brick building’s very existence and left a void in the center of a vulnerable community. Owned by an out-of-town limited liability corporation for the past few years, it’s up for sale again, this time with a $1 million asking price that Ferrandi says is unrealistic.

The steeple, one of the tallest in the city, remains damaged from the severe fire. Graffiti is scribbled across the northern wall of the courtyard, and ivy threatens to overtake the southern side of the church. Roofing material recently littered the sidewalk below.

When the Redemptorist order of priests arrived in what is now the Latrobe Homes neighborhood, the community was mostly settled by immigrant German Catholics. The priests opened the doors of St. James the Less in 1867 and for more than 100 years operated the Catholic church with the mission of serving the poor and spiritually abandoned.

Snow dusts rooftops, including that of St. James the Less, a historic Catholic church occupied for a time by a small Christian congregation that struggled to heat the building. (Courtesy the Redemptorists Archives)

Toward the later part of the 20th century, Baltimore’s demographics were changing. The German immigrants who once dominated the neighborhood were aging and moving away. St. James, designed by prominent Baltimore architect George A. Frederick, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982 but was closed four years later. It was sold in the 1990s to another Christian church, called Urban Bible Fellowship.

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When the new congregation moved in, its leader, Pastor Carl Pagan, nicknamed the neighborhood “Little Jerusalem,” his daughter Carla Pagan said.

“It was a big part of the community to have a building of that size vacant and then taken care of again,” she said. The congregation catered directly to people living in the Latrobe Homes neighborhood.

Over the years, Pastor Pagan occasionally contended with drug activity nearby, stray bullets shattering church windows and graffiti on the perimeter walls. Each time, he resolved to clean up what he could and continue his mission, Carla Pagan recalled.

Church members took special care to look after children living nearby like Lee. Every Sunday, the doors swung open and members of Urban Bible Fellowship crossed the street to invite people in for a sermon, Lee said.

Other days, congregants offered kids after-school snacks and a safe place to play in the church office’s computer room or the playground and basketball court behind the property’s walls. They organized field trips to Orioles games and the Maryland State Fair. In the summer the church hosted cookouts, and in the fall it gave students paper and pencils for school.

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“It kept some kids out of trouble,” Lee said of the church.

But the congregation hovered around 30 adults, never growing to the size Pagan’s father expected. He had tried to save money where he could, keeping the thermostat down and then driving over in the middle of cold winter nights to turn the heat high enough to warm up the massive building’s sanctuary before Sunday services.

“One night with heat left on too high would blow your operating budget to pay it,” Carla Pagan said.

Then came 2020. There was the pandemic lockdown, ending in-person worship. The lightning strike caused a fire in the steeple. The adjacent Catholic girls’ school, the Institute of Notre Dame, abruptly closed in June. That fall, Pastor Pagan, who had Parkinson’s disease, died.

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The little congregation decided to part ways with the building.

Urban Bible Fellowship sold it in January 2022 to a company registered in Nevada. Representatives of the company, Chee Development LLC, did not respond to requests for comment.

Its not clear what Chee Development intended to do with the property, or if improvements have been made. The St. James building has been vacant since the fire, neighbors say. The $1 million asking price in a recent property listing is more than double what Urban Bible Fellowship sold it for.

Urban Bible’s small congregation meets elsewhere and continues to use the proceeds of the St. James building sale, said Carla Pagan, who lives in the Philadelphia area.

The building and its 256-foot tower still loom over the neighborhood, but the void its once-active congregations left behind is apparent.

No more Sunday sermons. No more after-school programs or computer access. No more meals or school supplies. The basketball court is deserted.

Still, on a sunny morning in May, Lee looked up at the gaping hole in the damaged steeple where a clock used to tick and thought about its future.

“I always feel like it’s going to come back,” he said.