Powerful Pastors Paved the Way

“Baltimore's Powerhouse of Prayer” is what they call St. Alphonsus Church and Shrine.

My wife, Mary, and I quickly found out one reason why: There might not be another church in the country that can claim a saint and a blessed as former pastors.

The saint is John Neumann, the only canonized male saint from the United States. It was in this very church that he was consecrated the fourth bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. The blessed is Father Francis Xavier Seelos.

Both were Redemptorists, and both were pastors in the mid-19th century, when German immigrants were flocking to Baltimore and the parish was the provincial headquarters for the Redemptorist order. In fact, Bishop Neumann was pastor twice. Also, for the record, Blessed George Matulaitis visited this church once.

No wonder that, in 1994, the parish church was also named an archdiocesan shrine.

When we arrived for noon Mass, we didn't realize it was one of the days for the Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, followed by the Novena to St. John Neumann and individual blessing of the sick. After Mass, everyone went to stand by the full altar railing — who among us isn't in need of some healing? The celebrant prayed slowly and fervently as he blessed each of us.

There's also a weekly novena to St. Peregrine, known as the cancer saint. Downtown Baltimore has several hospitals with cancer centers.

We found the church in the midst of a major restoration campaign. Work on the 220-foot steeple is done. The 12-foot cross atop it has just been re-gilded and now gleams again in the midday sun. Even though the interior needs restoration, its heavenly beauty shines.

Redemptorist Relics

The church opened in 1845, we learned. To put that in historical perspective, it was already 15 years old when Abraham Lincoln became president. Since then, millions of eyes have contemplated the beautiful liturgical art and architecture. Thousands certainly did during the three hours they normally spent in long lines waiting for the kind, compassionate Father Seelos to hear their confessions.

The Redemptorists served German immigrants for nearly 75 years here. Once the Germans left — and, along with them, the Redemptorists — the Lithuanians acquired St. Alphonsus in 1917. To this day, one Sunday Mass is celebrated in Lithuanian.

We immediately knew where people focus their attention on entering this church, once called “the German cathedral” and today held as a remarkable example of southern German neo-Gothic style: the sanctuary.

The high altar in white, with all its filigrees and ornamentations, stands out in “wedding-cake” Gothic style. The tabernacle rests in the center of this celestial vision within a reredos that reaches toward the ceiling. This high altar looks like fine Carrara marble to complement other Italian marbles around the sanctuary. But we learned from Irene Mann, the church's director of development, that this main altar is really wood carved in Germany.

In the three large, arched niches near the top, an elaborate polychromed statue of St. Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists, looks out over the congregation. Equally detailed statues of Sts. Boniface and Martin of Tours, holding their crosiers, flank him.

This, we learned, is the altar on which Bishop Neumann and Father Seelos celebrated Mass. On Sundays and holy days, more than 100 people attend a Tridentine Mass celebrated at this altar.

A parade of saints in smaller poly-chrome statues starts around the sanctuary and continues to our Blessed Mother's altar on one side and St. Joseph's on the other. The heavenly role models are colorfully garbed and stand in individual canopied niches carved with lace-like filigrees that make the niches look like smaller decorative cakes. Their number includes saints not often encountered in statues, like Stephen, Margaret of Antioch, Louis of France, Mary Magdalene and Hedwig.

Saints Galore

We were next drawn to Our Lady's side altar, where a life-sized statue of Mary holds the child Jesus as he happily raises his hand in blessing. They're beautifully polychromed, framed by another intricate Gothic arch in the back.

The Gothic touch turns marble and wood into delicate liturgical lacework, from the frame around each Station of the Cross, to the full Italian marble Communion rail across the sanctuary, where the pattern looks like giant snowflakes, each with a golden “IHS” at the heart.

Even the church's columns, which are cast iron, have unique sprays of bold ribs that look like fountains spraying to the ceiling and gracefully supporting it.

We also visited the Chapel of the Saints, or Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where the Eucharist is exposed for adoration daily from early morning until closing time. The chapel includes many statues honoring saints — Michael the Archangel, Thérèse of Lisieux and Anthony among them. There's also the chair used for Father Neumann's consecration to bishop and a rosary made out of bread, water and hair by a woman imprisoned in Siberia.

More relics are near the gift shop in the rectory just off the vestibule. The small gift shop has Lourdes water always in supply. The rectory is quite large, as it was originally the Redemptorists’ 19th-century provincial house. In recent years, the Missionaries of Charity — more saints in the making — stayed a while in one of the buildings not visible from the street.

Next to the shop, we looked over the display of church records signed by Father Seelos when he was pastor (1854-57) and by Bishop Neumann when he was pastor from 1848-49 and from 1851-52.

During this time, Bishop Neumann was also master of novices and vice-provincial of the order. His simple room where he wrote his autobiography is open. His personal kneeler and a first-class relic for veneration are there. We felt graced to visit this simple room where a canonized saint lived — and to be reminded again why this church is “Baltimore's Powerhouse of Prayer.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.