As the Joseph House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, we are taking a look back at some moments in its history. This post is about the first home of the Joseph House, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Baltimore.
When Sr. Mary Elizabeth began the Joseph House as layperson in October of 1965, her circumstances were quite humble. She was alone, had no money, no support, and no place to go. That changed after she met a Vincentian priest, Fr. Donald Knox. He was pastor of the Immaculate Conception on the corner of Mosher Street and Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.
Fr. Knox welcomed Sister and her vision of ministering to the poor. He said she could set up shop in the rectory basement, although it had not been used in some time and was due for a cleaning. That did not deter Sister. She found a volunteer whitewash crew, a desk salvaged from the trash, and she was ready to begin her work.
The Immaculate has a long history, and it has been described as the poorest Catholic Church in Baltimore. Nevertheless, as a sign of the generosity of grace it provided a home for the fledgling Joseph House.
It seems appropriate that Sister’s work started in a basement, like a seed underground, and took shape within a parish named in honor of Mary as a pure creation of grace. That sounds like the workings of Providence. Seedlings are delicate: the Immaculate gave Sr. Mary Elizabeth the time she needed to solidify her aspirations. The generosity of Fr. Knox was especially helpful.
After a few months the basement was too small, and the Joseph House ministry moved “above ground” and into a new place on McCulloh Street.
Rafael Alvarez, in his book, First and Forever: The Archdiocese of Baltimore – A People’s History, tells the history of the Immaculate:
Administered by the Vincentians since its founding and established in 1850, Immaculate Conception was dedicated on September 21, 1851 to the Blessed Mother. At first a two-story brick building with a ‘well-lighted basement’ on Mosher Street, it is the first parish in the United States to bear the title of ‘Immaculate Conception.’
At the time of its construction on Mosher and Ross Streets, now Druid Hill Park, the area was considered rural, and with the exception of St. Mary’s Chapel on Paca Street, it was the only Catholic Church in northwest Baltimore.
By 1854 then-pastor Rev. Joseph Guistinianni realized the church’s need to expand, and in June the corner stone for the second church structure was laid. Three years later, Archbishop Kenrick consecrated the new, larger church where Father Guistinianni served for 32 years.
An earlier history of Baltimore, written by John Thomas Scharf in 1881, fills in a few details about the interior:
Many important improvements have been made to the church from time to time. Stained-glass windows have been added, the sanctuary adorned with some of Costagiani’s paintings, and a beautiful marble altar rail placed in position. The edifice is one hundred and thirty feet in length, seventy feet wide, and fifty- two feet high from floor to ceiling.
This second church that was built was the one that Sr. Mary Elizabeth knew. It was torn down in 1973, an act that Carleton Jones mourns in his book, Lost Landmarks of Baltimore:
Shamelessly destroyed in a deal between the church and the short-term needs of a hospital, the Immaculate Conception Church was the finest example of Tuscan Baroque in the city. But in 1973 it was simply another marooned ecclesiastical masterpiece, though impeccable inside and sweepingly moving without.
In 1994, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was twinned with St. Cecilia’s on Windsor Avenue, another parish served by the Vincentians. Alvarez notes that the Immaculate “remains vibrant, operating a variety of community outreach programs that serve the needy, ex-offenders, and recovering addicts.” A program for the latter is now housed in the former rectory.
The recollections of Sr. Mary Elizabeth about her time at the Immaculate can be found in our October 2015 Newsletter.
The feast day for the Immaculate Conception is December 8.