2907 Dunleer Road
Baltimore, MD 21222
(410) 284-0388‎
 
 

Saint Rita Parish History

 
St. Rita Church  in 1922
Original parish church, completed in November, 1922

Brief History of St. Rita Church

The history of St. Rita Church is one of creation and stewardship.  In 1922, Archbishop Curley decreed that a new church be built to administer to a group of about 200 over-flow parishioners of St. Luke Church in Sparrows Point who met for weekly mass in the Community Hall, Dundalk Building, on Shipping Place.

Fr. Joseph Weidenhan, the first pastor, was instructed to build a rectory and continue holding services in the Community Hall.  But plans soon changed; he was to build a church as well because the Community Hall was being made into apartments.

Providentially, at that time Bethlehem Steel agreed to donate one acre to any church that would build a permanent structure within a year. As St. Rita Church had no land, Fr. Weidenhan was quick to accept the challenge and bought an additional acre from the company. The parishioners cleared enough of the trees, and in November 1922, the first church, a small wooden structure with a short bell tower, was erected where the parking lot is today. A rectory was built on the corner of Dunleer Road and Dunmanway in 1923.

The church was a long, one-story wooden structure, with a double-door entrance at the front and a window on each side of the door. Windows ran down each side of the church, with a bell tower structure above the front door. The altar and bell were donated by another Baltimore church. 

In 1924, Archbishop Curley instructed Fr. Weidenhan and his new parish that they had until 1926 to build a school.  Again the young priest and his flock rose to the challenge. First they built a parish hall out of old WWI barracks lumber so that they could have a place in which to do their necessary fundraising. 

By February 1926, they had raised the money. The men of the parish cleared more of the two-acre plot to build an eight-room school and a convent. The cornerstone was laid on May 26, 1926, and on September 6 of that same year five sisters from the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, PA, welcomed 126 students at a cost of $1 per month per student.

Over the next 20 years the school and church both flourished. By 1943, the parish was totally free of debt. In 1947, St. Rita parish celebrated its silver anniversary with a mass in Heritage Park.  Soon, however, it became clear that debt would again have to be incurred due to the success of both church and school.  A cornerstone for the new church to replace the “temporary” wooden structure was laid on December 4, 1949, and what is now the current church was built near the old one.

Between 1950 and 1955, the convent and school were expanded.  The church purchased the Annex and the adjoining lot from the C & P Telephone Co., converting the building into classrooms for the 7th and 8th grades. Religious education classes began in 1957 for those who didn't attend St. Rita School. The parish enjoyed the weeklong carnivals, a popular fundraiser for the building of a Catholic high school in the area.

After 36 years at his beloved St. Rita Church, Msgr. Weidenhan died, and the parish turned in a new direction. In the following year, in 1959, the new church suffered two fires, the old church was demolished, and Fr. Edward DeLawder became the second pastor. Under his stewardship, the school and parish continued to flourish even in the midst of radical changes to the liturgy. Fr. DeLawder offered the mass in English and invited lectors, cantors, ushers and other lay ministers to participate in the liturgy as directed by Vatican Council II. In answer to the needs of an overcrowded school, he built DeLawder Hall, a multipurpose building beside the Annex. By 1959, the school was so popular that registration had to be limited to parish families, with classroom sizes averaging over 40 students.

In 1967, Fr. Joseph Kenney replaced Msgr. DeLawder as pastor due to failing health. Under Fr. Kenney’s watch, the parish celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1972.  St. Rita parishioners participated in folk masses and ecumenical services.  Some served on the first parish council, and St. Rita had its first director of religious education.

Fr. Edmund Stroup became St. Rita’s fourth pastor in 1973.  Under his brief administration, structural changes occurred in the church: the partial removal of the altar rail, carpeted floors, the altar moved forward onto a platform which extended into the congregation, front pews turned sideways, and the back altar decorated with a modern triptych. In addition, five men were commissioned as Eucharistic ministers. The Men’s Club and Youth Group experienced growth.  Annual picnics were popular. Seminarians began to train at St. Rita Parish.

Fr. William Migliorini began his stewardship of St. Rita Parish in 1975. He instituted devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and observed St. Rita’s feast day, which the parish would celebrate in May for the next 10 years. The parish enjoyed financial stability under his leadership.

The sixth pastor of St. Rita was Fr. Mark Logue, whose stewardship from 1980 to 1981 included repainting many of the buildings and the church ceiling and cleaning of the interior church walls.  He and a group of volunteers started Rita’s Supper Table. He stepped down as pastor, but remained as associate until 1984.

Fr. Robert Hawkins became the seventh pastor in 1981.  During his tenure, St. Rita School received physical enhancements. In 1986, the school earned the Presidential School of Excellence Award.  In 1988, both parish and school celebrated their 60th anniversary.  Fr. Hawkins instituted the first school board at St. Rita School in 1990, as requested by Archdiocesan policy. The church entrance was renovated and a parking pull-in was added to the Dunmanway area for the convenience of funeral and wedding vehicles. “Retired” Jesuit Fr. Nicholas Kunkel also lived in the rectory; he devoted his retirement years ministering to the Supper Table people, the seniors, the ill and shut-ins of the parish. He began many prayer groups as well.

In 1995, Fr. Hawkins handed the reins of leadership to Fr. William Remmel of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians) whose stewardship led St. Rita Parish in a slightly different direction. Liturgies took on a friendlier tone, volunteerism increased, the Pastoral Council and Contemporary Music Group were reinstated. Parish offices, now equipped with computers and a fax machine, were moved from the rectory to share space in the convent building, the school received a new roof, and the boiler and sound system were replaced in the church.  In addition, Fr. Remmel initiated an architectural study of the St. Rita campus to determine the best ways to renovate. The target of change was the church, which received a new ceiling, carpeting, refurbished pews, and new paint. St. Rita School received $40,000 in computer equipment from the Knott Foundation. St. Rita parish celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997.

When Fr. Remmel left in 2001, St. Rita Parish experienced with full force the shortage of available priests. Deacon John Martelle, who served the parish in many liturgical and administrative capacities since 1983, became administrator in charge, with Frs. Bogden Palka and Richard Maloney, Salvatorians who ministered elsewhere, for masses and confessions. Sadly, Deacon Martelle died a few months later. A retired Salvatorian and rectory resident, Fr. Donald Skwor, agreed to be pastor. But he too died in 2002.  Fr. Bogden left to be chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital. These were difficult times for St. Rita parishioners. In addition to pastoral problems, enrollment was dwindling in both the parish and the school.  Rumors of both school and church closing abounded.

Frs. Clarito Jundis and Chito Dimaran arrived in 2003 to be sacramental ministers, but they could not be administrators because they too ministered elsewhere. St. Rita’s assigned deacons, George Evans and Paul Mann, were working as hard as they could to keep St. Rita Church upright.  But this situation could not continue.

The Archdiocese tried pairing St. Rita Parish first with Sacred Heart of Mary Church and Msgr. Richard Parks, then with Our Lady of Hope Church and Msgr. Thomas Tewes as interim pastors, in addition to their regular duties, but that type of administration didn't work either.

Then the Archdiocese tried another model. Ms. Loyes Spayd came to St. Rita Parish as pastoral life director (PLD) and administrator.  Two priests from Fiji, Frs. Leronio Vodi Vodio and Ioane Sigarara, came to live at the rectory and take part in weekend services while they studied at Loyola College. In 2005, Ms. Spayd left for another assignment, and interim PLD Ruth Puls stepped in to deal with the rumors of the church closing and the extreme drop in school enrollment. In a few months, Ms. Puls handed parish leadership over to Deacon John Langmead as appointed PLD to further address these and other issues. In 2006, after much struggle and with much emotion, after 80 years of teaching the youth of the parish, St. Rita School closed its doors.

Deacon Langmead and his staff concentrated on what remained: giving hope to the parishioners who had been through a very rough period.  The main problem to overcome was the perception held by many in the community and in the archdiocese that the parish was in trouble because it did not have a priest as administrator.

Deacon Langmead worked hard as an effective administrator to show that the pastoral life director type of model can work. Under his watch, a new air conditioner, fully paid for through the generosity of the parishioners, was installed, the gutter system on the church was relined, the water stains were removed from the interior walls, the leaking roof was fixed, a new electronic bell system was installed, the doors were refinished, and much more.  The Deaf Ministry was installed at 11:15 Mass and Latino ceremonies are being held regularly.

At times, the parish has actually had an embarrassment of riches in the amount of priests available. These priests, employed as chaplains or as students, living in the  rectory and elsewhere, agree to assist with the sacramental duties of the parish. Fr. Michael Thornsbury was assigned priest for a few years and shared those duties with Frs. Leronio and Ioane. Fr. Richard Gray, a resident and college chaplain, presided at morning mass and funerals from 2005 until 2009. Fr. Greg Ferri was assigned priest at St. Rita and chaplain at Bayview Hospital, while residing in the rectory, but Fr. Peter Weiss, from Washington, DC, and Msgr. Richard Parks, retired pastor, were available for weekend services.

Upon the retirement of Deacon John in July, 2012, Fr. George Gannon took over as Pastor of St. Rita Parish. We are witnessing more Baptisms and an increase in young families attending Mass. There is an increase in the opportunities for Adult Faith Formation and positive participation in social events.

St. Rita Parish, with its long and dedicated service to its parishioners and the surrounding community, continues its tradition of being a strong, spiritual presence in the heart of the Historic Dundalk area.