HISTORICAL-SPRITUAL WELCOME TO ST. CASIMIR CHURCH
By Fr. Timothy Kulbicki, O.F.M. Conv.
James Cardinal Gibbons canonically erected St. Casimir Parish on November 9, 1902, as a mission of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Fells Point; St. Casimir became an independent parish in 1904. It served the growing Polish immigrant population of Canton who could no longer be accommodated at St. Stan’s. The redbrick current parish hall was the first church building, the upper floor serving as a Church, the lower as a series of classrooms for the newly opened St. Casimir School. Buildings were bought for a rectory and for the Felician Sisters who staffed the new school until 1921, when the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph assumed responsibility. In 1906 Cardinal Gibbons entrusted the care of the two Polish parishes of St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Casimir to the newly formed Polish-American Province of St. Anthony of Padua of the Conventual Franciscan Friars (OFM Conv.). In the early 1920’s four homes on the corner of Kenwood and O’Donnell were purchased as a school expansion; today these serve as the St. Joseph Cupertino Center in which can be found the St. Stanislaus Kostka Chapel where the Faith Community celebrates daily Mass.
The magnificent neo-Renaissance Church was built under the direction of the second Franciscan Pastor, Benedict Przemielewski OFM Conv., by Palmer, Willis, and Lamdin, and dedicated in 1926. It measures 225 by 75 feet, with a seating capacity of 1400. Twin bell towers 110 feet tall containing niches with nine-foot statues of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua crown the Indiana limestone exterior. A display commemorating the Church’s designation as the most significant architectural improvement to Baltimore in 1926 can be found in the vestibule.
The 1930’s saw the interior decoration of the Church, and the period of the largest expansion of St. Casimir Parish, to approximately 5300 members. Changing demographics, decreased immigration, poorly planned urban renewal efforts, and decreasing need for immigrant ministry began a long and slow period of numerical decline. Nonetheless the parish built a new school in 1955, and the present Friary/Parish Office and New Meeting Room in 1965. In 1975 the merger of St. Casimir School, St. Stanislaus School, and St. Leo School formed Fr. Kolbe School. Originally the St. Casimir campus was the site of the Middle School, and eventually of the whole school; in 1997 Fr. Kolbe became part of the Southeast Baltimore Catholic Academy (SEBCA). Also in 1997 the Archdiocese of Baltimore twinned St. Casimir Parish with St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish under one pastoral staff; in 2000 the Archdiocese closed St. Stanislaus Parish. Currently St. Casimir Parish has some 1000 parishioners and is an anchor in the renewal of Canton.
More recently, the former Sisters’ Convent was sold to the Believe in Tomorrow National Children’s Foundation and has become the Children’s House at St. Casimir, which is a residence for families whose children are undergoing long-term treatment for cancer and other diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Also, our school has come full circle. Due to the changing demographics, SEBCA was dissolved and, upon the request of the Archdiocese, Fr. Kolbe School has become, once again, the parish school of St. Casimir and has returned to its original name of St. Casimir Catholic School. The church has undergone an extensive renovation on the outside and the inside. The roofs have been repaired, the mortar joints repointed, the domes gilded, and the bells restored. Each of the 14 large stained glass windows was removed, re-leaded, repaired and cleaned. The interior of the church has been repainted and the most recent project is the refinishing of the pews (benches) and the wood floors, along with new carpeting. Sanctuary Treasures
The main altar is a modified reproduction of the main altar of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. The original was an 1895 creation gathering a series of bronzes by the 15th Century Florentine artist Donatello. The altar is composed of 15 tons of Tuscan marble, and each of the principal statues weighs 400 pounds of cast bronze, with the life-sized crucifixion scene weighing 800 pounds.
Dominating the high altar is a stylized Pietá: beneath the crucifix the enthroned Mother of God offers the Christ Child for adoration. On the reverse of the composition is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Paradise. The symbolism is clear: the sin of the Old Adam has been wiped away by the sacrifice of Christ, the New Adam; the cooperation in sin by the Old Eve has been removed by the cooperation in grace of the New Eve, the Mother of God. Flanking the cross on both sides are cast-bronze representations of (left to right): the Franciscan Bishop St. Louis; St. Casimir King of Poland; St. Francis of Assisi; St. Anthony of Padua; the deacon St. Daniel, an early Paduan martyr who was the companion of the final bronze in the series, St. Prosdocimus, the original patron of Padua prior to St. Anthony.
Thirteen bronze Donatello reproduction panels decorate the façade of the high altar. On the center of the bottom tier is “The Dead Christ Surrounded by Angels”; it in turn is surrounded by a series of rejoicing cherubs. To the left of the tabernacle is a panel representing a miracle from the life of St. Anthony: confounding the heretics who denied material goodness and hence sacramental presence, a mule adores the Eucharistic species. To the right is another Antonian miracle. The saint stops preaching on the Gospel passage “Where your treasure is, there your heart is” as a moneylender’s body is brought into church for his funeral: Anthony finds a money box in the cadaver’s chest in place of his heart.
Also of note is the magnificent wood-carved furniture. The sedilia, or presider’s bench, has the Franciscan coat of arms on the headrest, and stylized figures of the evangelists as armrests and shoulders. The pre-dieus (kneelers) have the same Franciscan coat of arms, flanked by Franciscan saints: Sts. Francis and Bonaventure on one, Sts. Clare and Elizabeth of Hungary on the other.
Theological-Artistic Tour of the Church
The interior of St. Casimir Church is decorated with a series of mounted murals begun in 1939. The murals above the sanctuary are the work of Anton Albens of Philadelphia, and highlight the divine work of sanctification. In the very center of the sanctuary apse is Christ the King (a liturgical feast proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in 1929). Echoing the preaching of the Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure, Christ the King is also Christ the One Teacher, who enlightens the teachers of the Church who surround him in the apse. They are the four great Latin Doctors of the Church, beginning on Christ’s far right St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome. The pedestal under these teachers is inscribed (in Latin) “I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filing the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).
In Franciscan theology it is Christ the One Teacher who uniquely reveals to us the Father; hence, the mural directly in front on Christ the King, depicting God the Father in full patriarchal splendor. In Catholic theology the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son; hence, in front of the murals of Christ the King and the Father is a mural of the Holy Spirit as the traditional Dove. Four murals of angels separate the sanctuary and the divine act of sanctification from the nave where the effects of sanctification are experienced.
The murals above the nave are primarily the work of the studio of George Nowikoff of Baltimore. The teaching and sanctifying power of God entrusted to the Church finds its beginning at Pentecost, the mural directly dividing the sanctuary from the nave. This sanctification is experienced within the Franciscan community whose pastoral leadership guides the parish; hence, the central ceiling mural depicting the apotheosis (or glorification) of Franciscan sanctity, a copy of the 18th century ceiling mural executed by Il Baciccio for the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Rome, the General Church of the Conventual Franciscan community.
This sanctification is also experienced within history in the lives of our fathers and mothers and those whose lives of faith continue to have an impact upon us. Hence, the series of murals on the left (facing the sanctuary) depict scenes of Polish Catholic history, beginning from the sanctuary: the Baptism of Mieszko in 966 and the Christianization of Poland; a miracle attributed to St. Stanislaus the Bishop in the 11th century; St. Hedwig blessing her son Prince Henry as he goes to battle the Tatars in defense of Christian Europe in 1245; the preaching and pastoral activity of St. John Kanty in the 15th century; the court preaching of the Jesuit Jan Skarga in the 17th century, which solidified Poland’s Catholic identity during the Reformation; the close union of the Church in Poland with Polish peasantry, which preserved Polish identity after the 18th century partitions of Poland; and finally the suffering of Poland in World War II.
The murals on the right (facing the sanctuary) depict scenes of American Catholic history, continuing the theme of sanctification. Beginning from the sanctuary: the first Mass celebrated on the North American continent; the martyrdom of the Jesuit St. Isaac Jogues and his companions in upstate New York; Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks”; Bl. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan founder of the state of California; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the first Catholic school in Emmitsburg, MD; Conventual Franciscan Fr. Leopold Moczygemba and the first mass migration of Poles to the United States, at Panna Marya, Texas, in 1854; and the work of St. Frances Cabrini among immigrants.
The theme of sanctification continues in the paired portraits depicted in the stained glass: beginning from the front, left/right, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary; St. Casimir, the patron of the parish and St. Stanislaus Kostka, the patron of the mother parish; the Franciscans Sts. Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua; Sts. Hyacinth and Stanislaus, Bishop-Martyr; the Polish royalty St. Hedwig and Bl. Salome; Sts. John Kanty and Adalbert; and the 9th century Apostles to the Slavs Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
Sanctification occurs under the continual shepherding of the Church, in the rear murals of Pope Pius XII and Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore, under whose reigns the murals were executed. It leads to the glorification of God, seen in the murals of the choir loft depicting St. Cecelia praising God in song and the joyful choirs of angels. It is grounded in the Franciscan tradition depicted on the back wall: the San Damiano Cross, a replica of the crucifix before which St. Francis of Assisi heard the call to “Go and rebuild my church”, and the mural of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Conventual Franciscan martyr of Auschwitz, both the work of the Conventual Franciscan Joseph Dorniak. The theme of sanctification is visually bound by the inscription on the pedestal surrounding the entire nave, which contains in Latin the Exhortation of Francis of Assisi to the friars: “Most beloved brothers and sons forever blest, hear me, hear the voice of your father. Great things we have promised, greater have been promised to us. Let us observe the former, let us aspire to the latter. Pleasure is short, punishment everlasting. Suffering is slight, glory infinite. Many are called, few are chosen. Brothers, while we have time let us do good”.  In Donatello’s original work, this is a representation of the early Paduan virgin martyr St. Justina. The present copy de-emphasizes obvious feminine characteristics and adds a crown to become a highly stylized St. Casimir.