July 7, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

An Emerald among Shadows (Part 1): St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church

Baltimore’s Irish community exploded in the years of the Great Hunger, and swelled the existing Catholic parishes and surrounding streets to the point of overflow. Many who began new lives in Baltimore became part of St. Patrick’s Church in Fell’s Point and St. Vincent de Paul Church in Jonestown. Most arrived as unskilled, and rented homes where they could be found in the alley streets of the area. Some larger homes were subdivided in order to rent to these Irish immigrants, and those just a bit more well-to-do headed just a bit north into Baltimore’s Eighth Ward, famously known as “Old Limerick”.

Sunday morning was an issue unto itself, as Baltimore’s Catholic churches were established along ethnic lines. Irish gathered in their own, English-medium parishes, in locations that were near the harbor and downtown areas. They usually had Irish-born pastors and their own societies and events that re-enforced their ethnic distinctives. This worked well as long as the Irish lived and worked within walking distance of their parish, but growth and expansion northward brought the Archdiocese to the determination that an additional Irish parish was needed in the northern section of Old Limerick.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church was the answer to the dilemma. It was founded in an area of town that was known more for shadows rather than light, and multiple thousands gathered to create Baltimore’s largest Irish neighborhood. While those shadows remained at its edges, the new parish established a thriving church, large schools for girls and boys, ministry to the elderly and poor and social settings for the Irish who enjoyed being among their own.

The Eighth Ward had a mix of both dark and bright institutions among its landmarks. They were established in earlier days, while the area was considered rural. Jones Falls formed its border to the west, and the City Jail and Penitentiary, with its formidable walls, were just within that boundary. A spot known as Gallows’ Hill (see this “Gallows Hill" link for a more exhaustive treatment) was established farther east, and was thought of as a place for executions beyond the walls of the jail.

The Ward had Baltimore’s most famous burial ground at its northern border. Green Mount Cemetery was established on March 15, 1838 and many of Baltimore’s most famous characters were interred there (usually non-Catholics).

It was not all doom and gloom, though. Belair Market (see photo above, from more recent days) was one of the city’s more vibrant public markets, located towards the southeast of the Eighth Ward at Forrest and Hillen Streets. It was a natural destination for the truck farms of Baltimore County that brought their produce to market from the northeast. The Carmelite Convent also brought in a good bit of light: located at the terminus of the Market buildings.

Gay Street’s cavernous collection of wholesalers and retailers was just beyond Belair Market, and shopping for various home goods was readily available to both urban dwellers and those who traveled by horse and cart into the city. The southwestern terminus of the ward was the aptly named Limerick Square. It was located in the area of the modern-day Main Post Office…just three blocks north of St. Vincent de Paul Church...east of the Falls, of course. It’s a curious thing; Baltimore' Jones Falls was lined with mill industries, and had few bridges. The Falls was thought of by some as an impenetrable divider: giving one city a feel of being two. The Eighth Ward used the waterway as its western border.

Greater Baltimore was populated in what seems like a logical method. People traveled along the thoroughfares that were their own “spoke” on the greater “wheel” of the city. Travelers to the northeast used Harford and Belair Roads, and those who settled further out came back into the city along those same routes. This travel both inward and outward was in high volume, and Archbishop Kenrick recognized the need to form a new Irish parish just east of Baltimore’s penitentiary. It would serve Catholics who had settled both in Baltimore’s upper Eighth Ward and the truck farms just beyond the city, as some Irish hadn’t had quite enough of farming in the old country.

Some Irish immigrants worked as farm laborers just to the northeast, in Baltimore County’s 9th and 12th Districts, and were in the habit of traveling into Baltimore City's Eighth Ward to sell their produce at Belair Market, and shop along Gay Street. Among these were Daniel and Anna Kenney (pictured below), natives of County Galway. They arrived in Baltimore County circa 1853. Daniel worked as a laborer in the Gardenville area of Baltimore County’s 12th Ward. They were Catholics, and finding an Irish parish to be part of was a challenge. German churches were nearby, and to the north, but they were among those who became earliest parishioners of St. John’s. It was in that Irish parish that their family received the sacraments, socialized with other Irish families and their children met future spouses.  Their son Richard Kenney was baptised in St. John's Chapel on August 5, 1854 (Rev. Bernard J. McManus presiding).

Archbishop Kenrick became the leader of the Archdiocese in 1851, in the middle of a dramatic expansion of population in Baltimore. He recognized that Irish Catholics towards the north of the city needed a church of their own, and assigned Father George Flaut to establish a presence between the Baltimore penitentiary and St. James Church, a German congregation at Eager and Aisquith Sts. The Chapel of St. John was established on the western side of Valley St. near Eager St., and held its first Mass on November 27, 1853. Once this task was accomplished, Rev. Flaut’s role diminished and assistant Pastor Rev. Bernard J. McManus was elevated to the position of Pastor (see Photo).

Rev. McManus was an ideal choice for the modest congregation. He was born in 1819 in County Roscommon, Ireland and ordained in September, 1850. His youthful energy was put to good use as 500 began attending Mass at the chapel, and he recognized right away that a full size church sanctuary was needed. As per many other recently established urban churches, a large dramatic building was planned by the Archdiocese, and the important architectural firm of Neirnsee and Neilson was hired to design a structure in the Italianate style. It would be in keeping with the design of other structures they had built in the city, including Calvert Street Station and the chapel at nearby Green Mount Cemetery.

The cornerstone of the Church was laid on May 13, 1855 by Archbishop Kenrick, on the southeast corner of Valley and Eager Street. Irish parishioners provided much of the labor to create the structure, laying brick and doing carpentry work in lieu of making donations: not an option for those new arrivals. Performing this work among their own was a vital role in the development of a community spirit by the Irish parishioners. Their efforts culminated in the dedication of the impressive church on June 15, 1856. It was 120 feet long and 65 feet wide, and seated approximately 1,000. Here's an image of the parish, found on Sachses' Perspective Map of Baltimore, published in 1869. Hopefully you can spot the twin towers of the church, and notice how it was built on the very edge of settled Baltimore: just south of the considerable farmlands of Baltimore County.

Our next issue will tell the story of the dramatic development of Baltimore's largest Irish parish in its first half-century.

We also thank those whose work is referenced in these articles about St. John the Evangelist Church:

John McGrain, Historian

Nathan Dennies

Rev. Richard Lawrence

St. John’s Old Tenth Ward, Inc.

Edward Papenfuse, State Archivist (ret.)

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

Baltimore Sun

Library of Congress

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

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