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The History of St. Ignatius Baltimore Parish

Across an ocean and two hundred years after the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a petition was raised to found a settlement on the banks of the Patapsco River. From its formal beginnings in 1729 through the mid-nineteenth century, Baltimore Town, as it was first known, was a rough-and-tumble place. A prosperous seaport city populated by native-born and immigrant whites (Protestant and Catholic) and black slaves, the city was also known by the moniker “Mobtown” for the frequency of its citizen-fueled riots in reaction to a variety of issues, from perceived traitorous activity during the Revolution to the Bank Riot of 1835, a violent response to the failure of the Bank of Maryland.

In the 1850s, riots erupted in conjunction with the campaigning and election of members of the Know-Nothing Party, whose political philosophies were strongly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic (the Know-Nothings were responsible for the defeat of the Kearney Bill, which would have allowed public aid to Catholic schools). In the middle of this volatile political climate, Archbishop Francis Kendrick, newly assigned to Baltimore from Philadelphia, asked the Jesuit Provincial to open a “college” (roughly equivalent to our contemporary high school) in Baltimore. The year was 1852, and the college was to be one of a number of Jesuit institutions opening across the country, both to counter the “threat,” as historian Nicholas Varga describes it, of the rapid development of sectarian colleges,” and because “higher education was inherent in their [the Jesuits’] cultural tradition” (4). Permission was granted, and after many negotiations, Loyola College was born.

EarlyUnder the leadership and vision of Fr. John Early, S.J., Loyola College held its first classes (at a tuition of “$60 per annum, payable quarterly” [21]) in two adjoining houses at the corner of Holliday Street and Orange Alley, across from City Hall. Before long, however, it became clear that the college would soon outgrow its space; classrooms were small and there was no room for a stage, library, gymnasium, or playground (34). Several new sites for the college were considered before the location at Calvert and Madison (at a price of $23,333) was settled on, and classes began on February 22, 1855. Eighteen months later, St. Ignatius Church, soon to be known as the College Church, opened its doors. Designed by architects Louis L. Long and Henry Hamilton Pittar, the church was graced by several paintings by Constantino Brumidi, an artist also known for his work in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.

The congregation of the early church mirrored the population of the city in many ways. Like Baltimore in 1860, St. Ignatius parish was nearly equally divided between foreign-born and native-born whites, with the majority of immigrants hailing from Ireland and smaller numbers from Germany and the British Isles. Historian Thomas Clifford, S.J., notes that the parish included a socioeconomic cross-section of the city’s population, “including some of the city’s wealthiest residents as well as some of the poorest” (25), and a disproportionately high number of doctors and lawyers (about twice the proportion of those practicing elsewhere in the city). These wealthy parishioners could be recognized in church by their positions in the front pews (rented at a price of “up to one hundred dollars a year” as opposed to a ten-dollar gallery seat (53), while less affluent church members stood through services. Current St. Ignatius parishioner Charlie Reeves remembers sitting in pews his grandfathers rented for a hundred dollars a year (based on twenty dollars per seat) as a small child in the early 1920s (“and behaving appallingly,” he adds, with a laugh).

The early community of St. Ignatius also welcomed black Catholics. Varga reports that “about a year after consecration of the church, ‘colored people’ were ‘earnestly invited’ to attend Mass and other services” in the Chapel of Blessed Peter Claver (55). In 1863, these parishioners were able to move to the old Universalist Church building at Calvert and Pleasant Streets to found St. Francis Xavier, the first black Catholic parish in the United States. The congregation of St. Francis Xavier has moved twice since and remains an active parish in East Baltimore. Today, St. Ignatius is enriched by African American, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, African, and Latino members.

The early years of Saint Ignatius clearly were not isolated from the politics and struggles of the times. Pastor Fr. William Watters, S.J., shares this bit of lore: read more

OrganOur Organ

The organ in the choir loft at St. Ignatius Church was originally built in 1860 by the Boston firm of W.D.B. Simmons. It was completely renovated, rebuilt and restored in 2010 by Patrick J. Murphy & Associates, Inc. Information regarding the renovation and photos of the renovation process can be seen here.