From the Archives: August 1, 2010
The French have a saying: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” That roughly translates to: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I was reminded of this recently when I received from our trusty archivist, Maryjane Green, a transcription of the diary of Joseph Donath, who had the dubious honor of serving as secretary and treasurer of the building committee which oversaw the construction of our present church. The diary begins in May 1838 and concludes in February 1839 with the completion and dedication of the new building. Maryjane’s Post-It note, attached to my copy of the transcribed diary, read: “Father – when you get discouraged by your ‘duties,’ give this a read & be happy you weren’t involved in 1838!”
In the first paragraph of the very first entry, Mr. Donath reports that at a public meeting of area Catholics (in late January of 1838) to discuss the feasibility of building a new church, “a difference of opinion had very near prevented the rebuilding of the church, as some of the pew holders in the old church who only rented their pews wanted to have the same pews in the new one.” Ah, the perennial human dilemma: continuity vs. change… (Pastor’s note to self: Maybe we should resurrect “pew rents”?!)
By May 29, the digging of the foundations was well under way, despite delays caused by unearthing the skeletal remains of six priests interred here during the first century of OSJ’s ministry. At any rate, a few months into the project, Mr. Donath reports on another perennial problem which still seems guaranteed to surface with every major construction job – namely, cost overruns. “Every mechanic yet employed complains that he cannot make any money by his contract & wants us to give more than he engaged to do the work for, that is impossible for us as a committee to do as we can only pay what they agreed to do the work for…”
Evidently, occasional divergence of local and diocesan priorities is also not a recent invention, for the diary notes on June 1 that “Bishop Kenrick has refused to perform the ceremony of laying the cornerstone, perhaps because he does not own the church and we will have to do without his Lordship!.” (St. Joseph’s University continues to own our land and our church buildings…) Furthermore, “on Friday the scaffold erected for the carts to carry out the earth gave way, one of the horses fell, but no injury was sustained, some time was lost in getting up a stronger one; Mr. Gahegan intends to put on as many carts tomorrow morning at ½ past 4 & try & get the earth taken out by 12, so that there may not be any interruptions to the corner stone.”
In the end, the cornerstone was laid on June 4, 1838, just three days after the original target date. It contains a sort of “time capsule” – a lead box nested within the stone itself which houses the constitutions of various parish groups, a secular and a Catholic newspaper, some U.S. coins, a medal honoring George Washington, and an account of the laying of the corner stone. (Pastor’s note to self: should we attempt to reorganize the Roman Catholic Library Association at OSJ?)
“Pastor fatigue” evidently dates back at least to June of 1838: “Revd Mr. Barbelin has gone to the country for his health & will remain some weeks, on his return Mr. Ryder [i.e., Rev. James Ryder, S.J.] intends to go to Georgetown, how long to remain I know not.” In this instance, the absence of the parochial vicar – apparently at the behest of the Provincial Superior – generated much more concern than the absence of the pastor. “A report is in circulation that the Revd James Ryder does not intend to return to his duties having been recalled, it has created some excitement in the committee and out of doors, should the report prove true which Godforbid…, for it is a fact not to be disputed that no other priest can collect the funds like Mr Ryder…” (Rev. Ryder did not, in fact, return to OSJ; this occasioned several strategy meetings about how to move fundraising forward without him. I’m still waiting for my Rev. Ryder to arrive!)
A concurrent diocesan capital campaign slowed down fundraising efforts and cut into clergy time (“the Bishop is begging for his Theological Seminary and has appointed the clergy to go about begging through all the city which will be an injury to our collections and getting more subscriptions”). A carpenter from Frederick MD, hired by Revd Mr. McElroy to craft the altar, apparently appointed himself as master builder on the project, causing the original supervising contractor (John Darragh) to resign in a huff.
Trials and challenges notwithstanding, the church was finally consecrated on February 11, 1839, a day later than planned because of tepid ticket sales for the event (“I have not sold over 15 and the most sold by one person is not 100, a great many have been given away to Protestants”). Naturally, there were bills left to pay; the balance outstanding was nearly $8,000 in 1839 currency (total cost for the building was about $22,000). I do thank God that I missed it! In fact, let’s all offer up a silent prayer of thanks for the Jesuits and dedicated lay partners who sacrificed and toiled and successfully completed our present church. I think we can agree with Mr. Donath’s diary that it is “a very pretty church when finished and…a credit to the architect & builders.” Ad majorem Dei gloriam et bonum animarum.
©2010 Maryjane Green