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High winds topple Baltimore’s ‘Star of the Sea’ but also uncover a trove of support

The cross or ‘the Star of the Sea’ was first illuminated using gas in 1890. For more than 100 years, it has guided sailors into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (Courtesy Father Josh Laws)

When the cross atop the St. Mary, Star of the Sea Church in South Baltimore was damaged in a wind storm this week, disappointment quickly turned to a deep sense of gratitude as the neighborhood rallied to support its church and workers uncovered a long-forgotten time capsule stowed away inside the base of the cross.

Inside two unassuming plastic bags were more than 500 yellowing offertory envelopes. Although now empty, they bear the names and addresses of parishioners who had paid to restore the illuminated cross after a similar storm in 1965. The cross — with a bright blue star encased in glass at its center — has been a beacon that has served as Federal Hill’s informal lighthouse for more than 100 years.

“Just think of the symbolism of that. The parishioners themselves were the foundation of that cross,” said Father Josh Laws, pastor of the Catholic Community of Baltimore, a multi-church parish that includes St. Mary, Star of the Sea. “Whoever the pastor was at the time thought to make that connection so that they would physically be present there. It said: ‘We’re still the foundation of the light and the hope that (the star) symbolizes for the neighborhood.’”

Nearly 500 offertory envelopes from the late 1960s were found inside the base of the cross atop St. Mary, Star of the Sea. The envelopes — from parishioners who supported an earlier restoration — effort were placed there as a time capsule. (Courtesy Father Josh Laws)

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered all Baltimore Catholic churches, including St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, Father Laws said the last thing he wanted to hear was that one of his churches had been damaged.

“Well, at first I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh! How is this real? How can this be happening?’ With everything else going on in the world now we have one more thing to deal with?” Father Laws said.

But as workers prepared a crane to retrieve the toppled cross from the church’s steeple, Father Laws said the neighborhood — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — gathered around church, expressing support for the beloved landmark.

“It was moving to see how much it means to people. Even people who are not registered parishioners and don’t have a history with the church feel a strong connection to that blue star that lights up in the sky at night,” Father Laws said. “It drove home that it’s more than just a star.”

Indeed, the church, which opened 1871 to serve Irish immigrants, has long been a beloved fixture in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood. The church was the subject of a 1907 poem by Folger McKinsey, a Baltimore Sun columnist and friend of writer H.L. Mencken.

The second stanza reads:

Pilots of ships, ahoy! And masters of tug and tow,

St. Mary’s watches above the tide with star of her tender glow

Around her feet the roar and the rumble and ring of trade

Factories filling the air with song shuttle and forge have made;

Over your heads she lifts in calm of the dreaming night

The star ye love, with its constant ray, the glow of the homebound light!

The cross and star of St. Mary, Star of the Sea sit inside the church after it was removed from the steeple on April 13. (Courtesy Father Josh Laws)

Using gas, the star first illuminated the harbor in 1890. “From the harbor, its rays are almost as bright as an electric light,” the Baltimore Sun reported on July 17, 1890.

Columnist Jacques Kelly wrote in a retrospective in The Evening Sun that 19th-century sextons had to climb “torturous stairs” to the top of the steeple each night to manually light the star and return at dawn to extinguish it. Years later with the advent of electricity, the task was easy as flicking a switch.

Denise Gerber, a life-long parishioner of St. Mary, Star of Sea, remembers the last time the cross was damaged when she was a student at St. Mary’s elementary school in 1965. She said glass from the cross fell onto the street and people picked up the shards and kept them as mementos. She still has her piece decades later.

“I was heartbroken because I can actually see the star from my window. And I always get my grandkids to look at it, too. And they got into the habit of saying, ‘Goodnight, Blue star,’” Gerber said. “I was so relieved when I heard it can be repaired. My uncle, on my mother’s side, was a parishioner also and he was a seaman and he said that was the last thing he saw when he was sailing out of the harbor.”

Although she remembers the cross toppling, she didn’t recall the time capsule and she said she can’t wait to get a peek at those envelopes.

As a schoolgirl, Denise Gerber, 64, collected a piece of glass from the cross the last time it toppled in 1965. She found the memento inside her Federal Hill home on April 13 after she heard the cross had toppled again. (Courtesy Denise Gerber)

“I had no idea. I would love it if my parents’ names were in there,” Gerber said, adding that her grandmother was also a parishioner. “We’ve been around forever at Saint Mary’s.”

Archdiocesan officials are still assessing the cost of the damages. Insurance is expected to cover most of the cost of repairs.

Father Laws said it’s still too early to predict how long it will be before the cross is repaired. Although only the cross was damaged in the storm, the parish will use this opportunity to also make wear-and-tear repairs to the steeple.

Much like in the 1960s, Father Laws said he has already received calls from parishioners and neighbors about how to donate to fix the cross.

So will the parish make another time capsule to place inside the “Star of the Sea?”

“That’s a great question,” Father Laws said. “I think I’ll have to ask the engineers who are going to wire it how great it sounds. I do think it will be a good idea!”

Email Tim Swift at tswift@catholicreview.org


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