July 7, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

An Emerald among Shadows(Part Two): St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church

Educating the neighborhood’s Irish children was a high priority for founding Pastor Father Bernard J. McManus, and the modest original 1853 chapel of St. John the Evangelist parish was refitted into classrooms for the girls. Mother Seton’s Daughters of Charity nuns arrived from Emmitsburg to teach 100 pupils, and the Female Academy began its first academic year on September 1, 1858. They remained at the School for a century, and were thought of as the heart of the parish. A boy’s school was added just after the Civil War, and the De La Salle Brothers arrived in 1866 to teach the boys. They remained until 1902, when the Nuns assumed responsibility for all students.

Father McManus had a heart for charitable causes, and established a parish co-operative where new arrivals could find help in securing the basic needs of life, and eventually purchase a home through this non-profit association. In addition to the help offered to young families, he had a tender spirit towards the aged poor, and established a home for them on Eager Street.

These ministries were typical of parishes at the time, which usually had a chapter of the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, as St. John’s did. They gave care to the sick and families who experienced loss, and also supported widows and orphans. The parish did not raise funds via the holding of “Balls”, as it were; the teetotalling Father McManus didn’t allow such things.

His zeal brought about the arrival of the French order known as Little Sisters of the Poor in 1869. The Sisters established their own facility on Valley and Preston Street (formerly known as John St.), eventually filling an entire city block (See Photo below). Early simple structures developed to the point when the Sisters opened their own chapel, dedicated in October 1874. Father McManus served as Chaplain.

The Sisters focused on those who had nothing at all, and cared for them...as they continue to this day (in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb). Charitable donations of money and goods were gratefully accepted, and their poor wagon (below) made its rounds to pick up donations.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church and its various organizations were at the center of neighborhood life. Church on Sunday morning was the least of it; organizations such as the huge Holy Name Society, Emerald Beneficial Society, Ancient Order of Hibernians Div. 6, Young Men’s Dramatic Association, libraries and a gym, temperance societies for boys and men, and a Women's Sodality with 500 members were part of the parish.

The church grew significantly during Father McManus' years of ministry. He was eventually elevated to Monsignor by Cardinal Gibbons, a dear friend of his for many years. The building itself was expanded in 1882, when 24 feet was added to its length, accommodating a considerable addition of pews.

A magnificent marble altar (pictured) was added as well, as was an apse and two side rooms. All of these improvements were in keeping with the need to care for the 7,000 parishioners that worshipped there at the time of the founding pastor’s passing on February 28, 1888…after 34 years of ministry. At the time of his death, his parish neighborhood had a boy's and girl's school that educated nearly 1,000 pupils, a convent for the Daughters of Charity, a home for the Christian Brothers and another building for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Father George W. Devine was also a native of Ireland, and began his pastorate on March 1, 1888. He focused on the expansion and development of the significant institutions in the neighborhood. Their new Pastor built a girl’s academy in his first year. It now held both a grammar school and High School. 900 girls filled the halls of the Academy, and the school flourished.

The Boy’s School building was also replaced in 1894, and had 600 boys in coming years. The parish boasted of having the largest parochial school in the Archdiocese, a natural consequence of being the eventual home of 12,000 parishioners.

Father Devine was honored at the time of his twenty-fifth anniversary as pastor by the placing of four large bells and a huge clock on one of the church's two towers. These rang on the quarter hour and hour, and also rang the Angelus three times a day.

Michael and Hannah (Annie) Golden Madigan raised a family in St. John’s 10th Ward neighborhood. He was born in March 1864 in Pallaskenry, County Limerick and arrived in Baltimore on October 10, 1884. Hannah was born May 18, 1872 in Banteen, County Cork. They were married by Father George W. Devine at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church on June 27, 1892. Michael worked as a track foreman and eventually became a railroad station agent. Annie gave birth to twelve, and died just after her youngest was born on April 17, 1910. The family lived at 616 E. Eager St., just a few blocks from the church. Ten of their children were baptized there.  

The Irish parish in Baltimore’s 8th Ward underwent a big change in 1898, when Baltimore City redefined the borders of the city’s wards (see above description). The old neighborhood was now known as the 10th Ward. Its new boundaries created a crucible of political influence in the parish, and the Catholic Irish wielded considerable power within the city’s Democratic Party. Plenty of fellows found good city jobs through networking with their political friends. The neighborhood itself was a vibrant collection of small businesses, church and schools, and two orders of nuns that kept everyone in line…for the most part.

German and Italian families intermingled through the Ward, and could be counted on to run good local bakeries and butcher shops, and brew plenty of beer. Father Devine eventually became a Monsignor (see Photo). He served the congregation for 35 years and is thought of as the pastor during the parish’s golden era. Monsignor Devine passed away on August 29, 1923.

He was replaced by one of the Parishes' own. James P. Holden had been baptized by Pastor McManus in 1855, and served as an altar boy at the Church for 6 years. His education began at St. John's School and culminated with his ordination in 1880. Father Holden said his first Mass at St. John's on Christmas Day, 1880. He began a vibrant ministry in the archdiocese that led to his becoming a Monsignor. He returned to St. John's as Pastor in 1923.

The church continued to thrive for decades, as did the schools (see Photo, ca. 1914) but eventually fell victim to changes in the area. Many of its congregants moved to the suburbs, taking advantage of modern transportation methods. These early parishioners were often the founding members of several new churches to the north and east.

Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church lasted 113 years, and held its last Mass on June 26, 1966. Those that wanted to continue attending Mass in the area went to St. James the Less Church, just two blocks away. It was located right next to the Institute of Notre Dame, a girls’ preparatory school that closed in 2020.

A vibrant organization honors the spirit and memory of the parish to this day. It is known as St. John’s Old Tenth Ward, Inc. and is one of the largest Irish organizations in the Mid-Atlantic. They serve the greater Irish community by sharing leadership roles in the organization of Baltimore’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Maryland Irish Festival.

Like the historic parish itself, they give generously to the less fortunate, especially to St. Elizabeth’s School of Special Education.

We thank these individuals and organizations who have contributed to these articles about St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church:

John McGrain, Historian

Nathan Dennies

Mary Wilson

Rev. Richard Lawrence

St. John’s Old Tenth Ward, Inc.

Edward Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist (ret.)

Alison M. Foley, MLS (Reference Archivist, Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary & University)

Vincent Smith

Baltimore Evening Sun

Baltimore Sun

Library of Congress

http://www.littlesistersofthepoorbaltimore.org/history/ (accessed 8-26-20)

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