There’s no getting around it, literally.
St. Casimir Church sits at the end of O’Donnell Street, seeming almost to anchor down the square. Certainly, the church has served as an anchor to countless families over the years, from those who had gotten off the immigration ships in the early 1900s and struggled to learn the English language and find jobs, to those today who struggle with finances, raising a family and the countless other stresses of life.
“We’ve had a lot of changes in Canton over the years,” says Fr. Ross Syracuse, who has been the pastor of the church for 13 years.
The church’s website provides a glimpse into the historic past of a structure that dominates the square. The church was first built in 1902 as a mission of the St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Fells Point; in 1904, it became an independent parish with its own identity. Its original parishioners, like those of St. Stan, were the Polish immigrants who settled throughout Southeast Baltimore.
That original church, however, was not the imposing limestone structure with the twin bell towers; it was the rectanguar red brick building across the street. The upper floor of the building served as a church, and the lower floor held the classrooms and offices of the newly opened St. Casimir School.
As the years progressed, several buildings adjacent to the church were purchased and converted to a rectory and a convent as well as additional space for use by the school’s exploding population. The church as Canton knows it was constructed in the intervening years and was dedicated formally in 1927. The church measures 225’ long and 70’ wide. Its seating capacity of 1,400 made it one of the largest churches in the eastern United States at the time of its construction.
The main altar is a modified reproduction of the main altar of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. The original was an 1895 series of bronzes by the 15th Century Florentine artist Donatello. A series of murals decorates the upper walls and ceilings; among these are scenes of Polish Catholic history and American Catholic history, as well as various scenes that reflect the theme of sanctification.
One essential figure for the church was Maximilian Kolbe, the Conventual Franciscan prisoner at Auschwitz who volunteered to give up his own life in exchange for that of another prisoner. His martyrdom (and his later sainthood) made him an almost larger than life historical and religious figure for Baltimore’s Polish Catholics, many of whom had moved to the U.S. to escape the religious persecutions of the time.
As the years moved on, populations shifted and the number of parishioners in Southeastern Baltimore’s Polish parishes and parochial schools began to decline. In 1975, St. Casimir Catholic School merged with St. Stanislaus School in Fells Point, and St. Leo School in Little Italy to form Fr. Kolbe School, named for the saint who had become so relevant to the faith of so many.
In 1997 the Archdiocese of Baltimore twinned St. Casimir Parish with St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish under one pastoral staff; on Easter Sunday of 2000, it closed St. Stanislaus Parish (a move that many longtime parishhioners still find unbearably painful).
With the ranks of those going into religious vocations dwindling, the convent at St. Casimir was no longer needed. Rather than being handed over for commercial development, and losing its identity, the structure and was sold to Believe In Tomorrow National Children’s Foundation. It is now the Children’s House at St. Casimir and is used as a residence for families whose children are undergoing long-term treatment for cancer and other diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
And the school? It has come full circle, returning to its identity of St. Casimir Catholic School, providing a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade education.
“The school has been a constant fixture and somethng we’re really glad is still around,” says Fr. Ross.
The church has changed over the years, population-wise, and in the last 10 years, has undergone renovation. The interior has been repainted and the exterior has been cleaned and repointed, the domes re-gilded and the stained glass windows cleaned and re-leaded.
Today, the church has approximately 1,000 parishioners. Together with its school, it offers Lenten food sales, bingo, a parish festival and other events. It retains its ties to the Polish immigrants who once filled its pews, sponsoring Oplatek and Paczki dances as well as Polish paper cutting classes and more.
“It’s a very active parish,” says Fr. Ross. “The population of the parish has really gone through a change. When I first got here to the parish, the young adults were just starting to move into the neighborhood. I would see them out walking their dogs. About six years ago, I started to notice that along with the dogs, there were a lot more baby carriages. Two years ago was the first time we had more baptisms than funerals, and we’re on track to do that this year.”
BY MARY HELEN SPRECHER