What was once a place of worship for the Redemptorist parish of St. Michael the Archangel Church has been transformed into a new community gathering space, the Ministry of Brewing in Upper Fells Point. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)
So, stop me if you have heard this one: A priest walks into a bar – that used to be a church.
But when Father T. Austin Murphy Jr. arrives Friday, Feb. 7, for the grand opening of the Ministry of Brewing in the old St. Michael the Archangel Church in Upper Fells Point, it won’t be a joke. It will be to witness a dramatic transformation of a historic Baltimore sanctuary.
The transformation has some in the area bullish on a neighborhood revival, but others are dismayed that what was once was a place for weddings, baptisms and funerals is now a trendy nightclub.
“It certainly is not what the church was built for,” said Father Murphy, pastor of Christ the King Church in Glen Burnie. “And certainly, it’s not what the church had served over the hundred-some-odd years that it was operational. But also, what were they going to do with the building?”
Here’s somebody who’s willing to invest in it as a historical place in the city so that the building will always be there,” Father Murphy said.
Stained-glass windows crafted in Munich, most of the pews and the altar are long gone. The massive statue of the church’s namesake, carved in walnut, sits in a Pennsylvania warehouse waiting for a new home. But much of St. Michael’s remains — its soaring ceilings lined with beautiful frescos, its towering Corinthian columns and even its ornate wooden confessional.
After weeks of delays, the owners of Baltimore’s newest brewery and brewpub will officially open the doors this week. But how did one of Baltimore’s most historic Catholic churches – built in 1852 to serve German immigrants and once led by St. John Neumann – become a brewery? It’s complicated.
After years of declining attendance and much-needed and expensive repairs, St. Michael was closed, and its mostly Spanish-speaking parishioners were invited to Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in Highlandtown in 2011.
Owned by the Redemptorist religious order, the sprawling St. Michael campus – which included a school, rectory and parish meeting space – then sat on the market for years looking for a buyer.
“We realized that we, as an order, didn’t have the finances to be able to upkeep that building ourselves,” said Redemptorist Father Paul Borowski, provincial superior for his religious community. “Instead of just letting it disintegrate, how could we somehow get a buyer in there who could keep the exterior of the building and do something else?”
Dr. Diane Barr, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said it’s uncommon for a Catholic church in the Baltimore area not to be owned by the archdiocese. Churches owned by the archdiocese have special or “clouded” deeds, which prevent new owners from using the building for certain purposes including gas stations, adult movie theaters, massage parlors and, yes, bars and restaurants.
While some of the same restrictions applied to the St. Michael campus, the bar-and-restaurants language was not part of the deed, Father Borowski said.
The Redemptorists tried to work out a deal to sell the campus to nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital, but that plan fell through. Finally, with the buildings in disrepair, Father Borowski said the order made the decision to sell the campus for $1.3 million to the owners of the Ministry of Brewing to convert the church into a brewpub and the rest of the campus into apartments.
“People weren’t lining up on Lombard Street asking to buy the building that would have just begun to disintegrate and then eventually collapse,” Father Borowski said. “And you would have had a big hole in the ground in the middle of the neighborhood.”
By the time of the sale, the space had been deconsecrated. The deconsecration process is not elaborate, taking the form of a simple written decree, Father Borowski said. But its most holy objects were given to other Catholic churches, including Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But that’s cold comfort to longtime parishioners such as Barbara Aupperley.
“I was devastated,” Aupperley said of the conversion. “When you think of all the funerals, baptisms, marriages, first Communions, there. That’s difficult.”
Aupperley said someone in her family had been a parishioner of St. Michael since 1869. A lifelong parishioner until the church closed, Aupperley also served as a cantor and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
Her daughter and son-in-law were the last couple to be married at the church just a week before it closed. Aupperley, a retired teacher at Our Lady of Hope-St. Luke School in Dundalk, said even turning St. Michael into another Christian church would be hard to wrap her mind around. She gets emotional when she speaks about the church and has no plans to tour the new space.
“I avoid the area, even if it means going out of my way,” said Aupperley who is now a parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.
Barr said the archdiocese prefers to repurpose its unused church buildings for use by another Catholic institution such as Catholic Charities of Baltimore or Mercy Health Systems. When that’s not possible, a second option is to sell the building to another Christian domination.
But sometimes a church closure allows for a creative solution.
A recent example is St. Patrick Church in Western Maryland. Built in 1793, the historic church in Mount Savage is now being leased by a nonprofit group made up of former parishioners who wanted to take on the financial responsibility for keeping the church from being sold to an outside group or torn down. Friends of St. Patrick Mount Savage will host special events such as weddings and two Masses will be celebrated there each year.
Back in Upper Fells Point, Ernst Valery, one of the owners of the Ministry of Brewing, said he and his fellow investors spent two years and $2.5 million renovating the space. The new owners upgraded the bones of the space, adding new heating, air conditioning and electrical systems. They also painstakingly restored the frescos of saints such as James the Less that line the ceiling and other historic details.
But it’s clear this is no longer a church – where the altar once stood, large 20- and 40-barrel vats brew beer in-house. A giant stack of beer kegs sits to the side of the old altar area. But while the space has been transformed, staff members said they want to honor the history and not make light of the Catholic faith.
“We wanted to be respectful. We’re not going to have any tongue-in-cheek names for the beers here,” said Jon Holley, Ministry of Brewing’s general manager.
Because the building has been deemed a historic landmark by Maryland and the federal government, many of its fixtures such as the frames that once held brightly colored carved Stations of the Cross could not be removed, Valery said.
A Catholic and onetime resident of the neighborhood, Valery sees the newly repurposed campus as the start of a renaissance for the neighborhood. He wants St. Michael the Archangel to remain a focal point for the neighborhood even though it’s no longer a church.
He plans to have students from low-income ZIP codes learn chemistry and other lab skills at the brewery as part of a summer program.
“The whole theme is inclusion,” Valery said. “Great beer and inclusion.”
Father Murphy said his visit to the new Ministry of Brewing on Friday night will be bittersweet. He’s happy there is a new gathering place in the neighborhood, but he mourns the loss of St. Michael. He said the Ministry of Brewing can serve as a lesson to Catholics to not take their churches for granted.
“If people want to keep those services, we need to evangelize better and they need to evangelize because that is the only way we keep these places open,” Father Murphy said. “If we allow our faith to just sort of fiddle off and wash away and we don’t use the churches, this is going to happen a lot more places.”
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org