March 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke McCusker

Memorial Day: an Irish Remembrance

Memorial Day is a time for reflection for many whose ancestors served their country, and often paid the ultimate price. Our Museum is a place for many to tell the story of how the immigrant Irish served their new nation during days of crisis, and inspired future generations to do the same.

St. Peter’s Church was the first Catholic church in West Baltimore, and is called the Mother Church of that side of town; rightly so. Thirteen churches resulted from the outreach of the congregation, with St. Martin of Tours being the first.

Its establishment was entirely necessary in the eyes of Archbishop Spalding, and the cornerstone was laid on July 9, 1865 among considerable fanfare. 20,000 attended ceremonies, and a parade two miles long magnified the festivities of the day.

Baltimore had sent many a young man off to fight in the Civil War, with 1/3 of them fighting for the Confederacy. That being said, it was a railroad town, and many thousands filled essential worker positions both in the city and beyond, supporting rail traffic via the B & O Railroad and its large network of tracks through several states.

St. Peter’s was the “railroader’s church”, and the sanctuary and school, attended at a level beyond overflowing before the war, had a downturn during 1861-1865, as many men and their families followed the war, and workplaces became far afield for many. St. Peter’s Male School dropped to 106 pupils in 1862, or half of what it had been before war began.

The end of the Civil War brought many families back to Baltimore, and overwhelming numbers led to the creation of St. Martin of Tours, West Baltimore’s second Catholic Irish parish, where Rev. John Foley served as Pastor. Not one for subtlety, Archbishop Spalding led the efforts to build the church with a 125-foot spire, and a granite exterior done in the Byzantine style.

The Church was dedicated in 1867, and became the social and spiritual center of the adjoining neighborhoods. Foley Hall was an adjacent building, and contained several bowling alleys, billiards room, a 500-seat musical hall and a well-equipped gymnasium. Their school attracted many families as well, and the Catholic Church was the denomination's third largest in Baltimore by 1920, with 7,300 families.

The church and school continued to flourish, and this gathering of school children, nuns and parents on April 4, 1937 reflects the vibrant community. Thanks to Robin McLelland for sharing this photograph.

World Wat II Placard

St. Martin’s was known as a giving church. Both rich and poor attended there, and the West Baltimore parish was included in Catholic social registers.

It became the most prosperous Catholic Church in Baltimore by 1920, and the membership was generous to the poor of the area, especially during the Depression era. $5,750 was given to the parish poor from their own coffers in 1931.

The Irish church gave sacrificially in other ways as well. A placard, still in place today on the structure, tells us that hundreds of young men from the parish went off to Europe in World War I, undoubtedly resulting in the loss of many.

The church building’s facade also includes a remarkable memorial plaque honoring those who served in World War II. It is amazing to consider that one parish in West Baltimore sent at least 900 young men to the European and Pacific theatres, with many undoubtedly paying the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

We honor them today.

World War I Placard

St. Martin’s closed some years ago, but the structure is being repurposed by Bon Secours Hospital to give care to the many that come their way: often in the most desperate state. We trust that the building will be used as a place of giving to others, as it was for over 100 years by the Irish of West Baltimore.

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