Our Lady of Pompei Church: staff
In the Beginning
After spending 17 years of missionary work in the land of
China, Fr. Luigi Scialdone, C.M. came to Highlandtown. The archbishop at the
time, Michael J. Curley, appointed Fr. Scialdone pastor—shepherd—of the
scattered Italian flock. Archbishop Curley reflects on Fr. Scialdone’s work in
his letter of April 7, 1934: "He began his work under the most difficult
circumstances … The Italian flock was scattered. Very little attention had
been paid to them." Work began on January 16, 1923, just as the
"Roaring Twenties" were beginning.
The United States during the 1920s was full of hope. This
world promoted an individualistic, laissez-faire outlook. Many Americans enjoyed
wealth accumulated through wise business practices. At the same time, poorer
members’ of society, in particular immigrants, were marginalized. The Catholic
Church, too, was not immune to such societal values. Catholic clergy maintained
that their role was to care for the spiritual well-being of their people, and
"considered it inappropriate to enter public life or criticize unjust
social conditions." Likewise, devotional life was characterized by a
privatistic outlook that sought to bring spiritual solace and comfort, "but
in such a way that there was little or no connection to the rest of life."
It was into this world that Our Lady of Pompei was born. The
scattered, neglected people who formed Pompei moved forward to realize this
dream and hope. Its identity was forged as a direct result of being neglected.
Our Lady of Pompei understood its self-identity to be rooted in their experience
of "otherness." While work was underway on their church, the community
celebrated mass with Fr. Scialdone in the basement of Sacred Heart Parish at
Conkling Street and Foster Avenue. Finally, after a year of what seemed like a
lifetime of work for some, the construction of the new church was over. This
Italian flock had a nest of its own! The church doors were officially opened to
the public with a Mass at 10 o’clock on the first Sunday of June 1924. The
labor of a community’s love came to fruition. Dedicated to the Blessed Mother
under the title "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of Pompei," this parish
quickly became known throughout Highlandtown as "Pompei."
Our parish was born into a rapidly changing world. The
industrialization and urbanization of American society experienced through the
1920s soon began to challenge traditional values, yet nothing in the 1920s was
more disastrous than that of the Stock Market Crash of October 24, 1929 and the
Great Depression that followed. In the 1930s, believers found warmth and a sense
of community in their churches. Success during this time was measured not
financial security or status in society, but by a sense of belonging. Commenting
on this period, one historian writes:
The anxiety brought on by the Depression
gave rise to this desire, since with the loss of everything else, the
biggest fear haunting Americans was the loss of supportive relationships
or the loss of place in the community…Such belonging not only offered
security, but also provided grounding in a time when many were searching
The Church provided the community and continuity that people
needed. At our community — our parish — people came to a community of warmth
and support. Neglected immigrants found status. In this community, people were
put in touch with the traditions of the Catholic Church and the customs of the
Italian people. To a people yearning for security, comfort, and belonging,
Pompei—a parish forged out of "neglectedness"—responded.
A "Little" Little Italy
"The glory of God is Humankind fully alive…"
St. Iraneus of Lyons
We have now celebrated 75 years of life at
"Pompei." This is a time of great rejoicing. It is also a time to take
a step back for we have earned our right to reminisce. Our first baptism –
Palmieri Maria Grazia … Our first wedding—Lorenzo Ruggiero and Rosaria
Marino … the many priests who ministered to this community—Fr. Scialdone,
Fr. Piper, Fr. Hogan in 1925 … the first Italian confrere, Fr. Nicholas
Modonia, on February 20, 1926 … Fr. Erasmo Spiriti, March 9, 1927 … finally,
on August 9, 1928, the Neopolitan Province of the Vincentian Fathers took
responsibility for the community. Still other help for the community’s
founder, Fr. Scialdone, from the Vincentians of Germantowne, PA—Fr. John O’Byrne,
Fr. William Mason, Fr. Francis Meaney. Fr. Scialdone’s brothers in Naples also
sent help to this shepherd of the neglected Itialian flock—Fr. Vincent
Turturro and Fr. Joseph Tomaselli.
Others came in the early years to minister to this growing
community in Highlandtown. The Filippini Sisters arrived on August 27, 1928.
They were four in number at the beginning, but slowly others of their order came
to continue their work of Catholic education. Still others ministered in this
community. These were the men and women of Pompei reaching out to their fellow
parishioners with hands of healing, love and friendship coupled hearts of joy
and faith. Luigi Aiello and the Holy Rosary Society … Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
and Anna DiPietro … Luisa Castelazzi and the Children of Mary … the Ladies
of Charity and Mrs. Carrie Bucher … Alfred Santoni and the Holy Name Society
… Pasquale Celozzi and Our Lady of Grace … the Music Club … the Mothers
Let the names of these men and women forever be remembered:
"The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their
praise" (Sirach 44:15).
These memories form the core of our heritage: our first 25
years. Before long, 1924 became 1949 and it was time to mark our 25th
… to celebrate all that had been and to prepare for all that was to be. In his
June 22, 1949 letter to Fr. Scialdone, then Archbishop Francis Keough writes:
"We are humble in our reverence for the achievements of priests, sisters
and people who have done so much for a quarter of a century to make the Catholic
Church a power for good here in your community. In your parish, sacramental life
has flourished, morality has been matched by the generosity and appreciation of
For some, it was unbelievable that 25 years had passed. Many
who celebrated this Silver Anniversary were the ones who built this church,
brick by brick. So many precious memories … so many more to come! New
conferees from Italy—Fr. Robert Petti, Fr. Pompeo Vadaaca, Fr. Joseph
Fiorentino, Fr. Lou Esposito. Still others came to help our community – Fr.
Carol Noonan, Fr. Louis Trotta, and Fr. Joseph Cesa. These priests are
remembered with those men and women who established our community. All of these
men and women served (and in some cases, still are serving – the "Fr. Lou’s")
our community faithfully with love and laughter.
Other precious memories were to come … the story had only
begun! A pink church (yes, it was real) … soccer teams … bingo … carnivals….
Feastdays … bull roasts. These next 25 years, however, can be characterized
most by our community’s commitment to Catholic Education.
This commitment to Catholic education began, as many things
have in our parish, during the first 25 years with Fr. Scialdone requesting that
the Religious Sisters of St. Filipini open a parish school. On August 27, 1928,
the Filipini Sisters arrived. Through the diligent work of Sr. Assunta Crocenzi,
the first supervisor, and her three companions, the parish was presented with
its first graduating class of seven on June 21, 1929. School was held in rooms
above the church and convent buildings. In fact, many of these rooms still bear
the marks of the teaching classroom. Nevertheless, time moved ever on bringing
with it many more students. By our Silver Jubilee in 1949, Catholic education
had been firmly implanted in the life of the parish. Change is inevitable, and
this certainly was the case. Within ten short years we found that the youth of
society became disenchanted with the world of their parents; many new problems
arose with only a few old ones solved. It was at this point that Fr. Tomaselli,
pastor at the time, decided that our community should work with high school
students … and the sisters agreed.
It was 1956 when building began for the new high school, but
it was not until 1959 that it opened its doors to Ninth grade students. Four
years later, in 1963, seven boys graduated. Interesting, don’t you think?
Seven…the same number thirty years prior in 1929. This was the fulfillment of
a dream … the culmination of a commitment. With these boys, Pompei’s history
would forever be changed! Form this point on, our community’s commitment to
Catholic education was sealed and forever intertwined with the life and love of
this parish. Our role was not only to prepare young children for secondary
school and hand on to them the traditions of our faith and culture, but we were
also to educate and prepare young men and women to be active Catholics in both
the life of the Church and the Republic. We were preparing our future! This
future, however, that some saw so plainly on the horizon, others viewed as
troublesome. The world was changing rapidly, too rapid for some and not enough
for others. The 1960s were on the horizon, and life would never be the same
again … Pompei would never be the same.
"Protect Us from All Anxiety…"
As the 1960s began to emerge, the world found itself in the
midst of change, conflict, and crisis. The security desired in the post-World
War II era, and which seemed to last through most of the 1950s, gave way to
immense anxiety in the new decade. In the late 1950s, many young college
students, often dismissed as the "Silent Generation," began to speak
out "against the conformity and boredom of the middle-class surburbs."
These young "rebels" idealized singer Elvis Presley and actor James
Dean. They even had a distinctive fashion trend—tightly pegged pants.
Commenting on this period of American history, historians note:
The "beat" movement of the
late 1950s expanded on the theme of revolt, and Jack Kerowac vividly
captured the restless motion of the beatniks in his autobiographical novel
On the Road … [The beatniks] fashioned a highly publicized
subculture that blended radical politics, unbridled personal
experimentation, and new artistic styles.
It was to this beatnik generation that Fr. Tomaselli
responded with the opening of Our Lady of Pompei High School in 1959, on the eve
of the new decade.
With the arrival of the Sixties, the beatnik subculture
became more and more prominent. Rock music held this movement together, with
groups such as the Beatles suggesting personal and sexual experimentation that
alarmed many older people. Nevertheless, it was one man, "a young
folksinger turned rock poet with an acoustic guitar, who best expressed the
radical political as well as cultural aspirations of [this generation]."
His name was Bob Dylan, and his song, which became this generation’s rallying
cry, had at its core these words: "the times, they are a’ changing."
This song, with its simple and often repeated chorus, captured the spirit of the
times: a sense of continuing alienation from those whose defining moments had
been the Great Depression and World War II; a generation ready to shrug off what
it saw as the complacency and conformity of the 1950s in order to put on a new
commitment to fixing the world’s problems.
Many wondered what tomorrow would bring. Would it see the
return of the seeming security of the 1950s or the advent of a "New Social
Order?" Intense optimism coupled with negativism pervaded the world. It was
a time that saw the birth of great possibilities, while also the death of old
ways. In the midst of this confusion and uncertainty, many clung to their
churches for security, only to find something that they did not expect: the
Church was changing!
The Church was, for most, a bulwark of stability and security
in an unstable world. The changing Church caused many to question their faith.
Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Church was in the midst of Vatican
Council II. During the tenth anniversary of our high school in 1969, one young
priest of Our Lady of Pompei wrote these words in our high school newspaper, The
In varying degrees, it can be said that
the whole world is living in a time of transition; we are witnessing a
revolution that will eventually modify all aspects of life; it is in fact,
a scientific, moral, and religious revolution. The changing Church, then,
is not an isolated phenomenon of our times, but only a particular phase of
this complex and complete transformation of our world.
And so the people of Our Lady of Pompei responded to the
changing world; our community once again met the needs of its members. Even with
reluctance, our community underwent changes: the neighborhood, the interior of
the church, the words spoken at Mass, and even our "newly completed"
school. The reflection above was and still is apt: the "whole world is
living in a time of transition." Pope John XXIII spoke of an aggiornamento,
or an "opening up" that was to encompass not only the Church as an
institution, but also the hearts of its members—the hearts of the men and
women of Our Lady of Pompei.
The opening of our hearts, however, was and still is not an
easy task. The assignation of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was a turning
point for many Americans, and for many Catholics as well. The scene of little
three-year-old "John-John" saluting his father’s passing coffin is
forever etched in the minds of Americans. What was to become of our world and
our country? This was a time of great civil unrest. Still other challenges were
facing the world: the threat of nuclear war, radical political demonstrations,
and the heavily debated Vietnam War. This war was perceived by many of the young
as immoral and imperialistic. "Nam," as it came to be known, touched
everyone’s life. War does not know the boundaries of race, creed, or class. In
that same issue of our community’s high school newspaper, The Dolphin,
one anonymous student reflected on the challenges of Vietnam and demanded that
we answer a most pressing question: "Are we so swelled with apathy that we
think only for own safety and lives?" As the war intensified, so too did
By the end of the decade, the world knew that it would no
longer find the security and comfort it had once known. Members of our community
realized that the world was changing, and that change was a necessary and
difficult part of life. The Church also recognized this with Vatican II. In
arguably one of the most beautiful passages from the documents of the Council,
The joys and hopes, the grief and
anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or
afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers
of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo
in their hearts. For this is a community of people united in Christ and
guided by the Holy Spirit in their pilgrimage towards the Father’s
Kingdom, bearers of a message of salvation for all of humanity. That is
why they cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its
The joys and hopes of all humanity are also those of all
Christians. Before we identify ourselves as Catholic or even Christian, we must
first recognize our common humanity—that which binds all of us together. We
are in solidarity with all humanity as a result of this recognition! These words
of the Second Vatican Council give hope for the future.
In the midst of the conflict, change, and crisis of the
turbulent Sixties and Seventies, the people of Our Lady of Pompei once again
gathered together to celebrate peace, tradition, and stability. They celebrated
a Golden Jubilee—50 years of life—in 1974. This time, as our
community reflected upon its past and present and looked toward its future, it
realized the truth of the beloved French proverb: the more things change, the
more they stay the same. In other words, despite the changes and conflicts of
the last 25 years, our community had not changed in one important way: it
existed to meet the needs of its parishioners. Old and new parishioners stood
side by side to thank and praise God for the existence of this community. They
recalled the vision and danced to the old music: they celebrated their home—they
celebrated in God’s home! And for some, the words of the new Mass rang clear:
"Protect us, Lord, from all anxiety…"
One dark night
Fired with love’s longings
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now stilled
St. John of the Cross
In his August 1, 1974 letter, then Archbishop William D.
Borders writes: "Today is a celebration in the true sense only if our
festivities are a continued expression of God’s presence in our
community." Despite the joyful celebration of our Golden Jubilee in 1974,
many people began wondering if the sentiments of the Archbishop were true. The
latter half of the 1970s and the decade following were characterized by "a
long period of economic stagnation, widespread unemployment, and social
dislocation." Add to this a military buildup and an intense politically
conservative atmosphere, and we have the recipe for a troubled age. What many
saw on December 31, 1979 was a new decade—the 1980s—full of possibilities,
but many found instead a bleak entry way to a "Dark Night."
There are many ways to characterize a "dark night":
the absence of the good, true, and beautiful; to be in the presence of evil;
despair; and countless others, both positive and negative. Probably the best
characterization of "Dark Night," however, comes from St. John of the
Cross. His conception of a "Dark Night" involves a journey through:
A "night" in which the soul
experiences both active participation, through its own efforts, and
passive purification, through God’s work in it. In this purification,
the whole soul is affected.
St. John’s doctrine describes the all too human realities
of war, rejection, failure, fear, and sin. These realities exist despite our
hunger and thirst for peace, acceptance, success, joy and light. Too often our
human experiences conceal those things for which we long and move us toward the
realities we must face. This is what St. John means by the "Dark
Night," or in the words of Bishop Robert Morneau, "the night
These elements read like a litany of lament. However, Morneau,
like St. John, warns us that we must not resist these darker elements of life
for it is here that we meet God. For like Job, we wail against the night only to
find God on the horizon fast approaching. Our challenge, then, is to confront
this darkness—to face it head on. This challenge is what the "Dark
Night" of St. John’s poem refers to because "in reality [it]
describes a very humdrum and ordinary series of events which is met by the
everyday virtues of perseverance and does not call for unusually dramatic
The world, and Our Lady of Pompei in particular, faced the
challenge of St. John’s "Dark Night," and in many ways continues to
do so. In the world of the 1980s and early 1990s, there was much to be troubled
over: political breakdowns and buildups, wars, economic stagnation, conflicts,
and controversies. Each generation must face anew the realities that forged
their parents, but each new generation must face these realities under new
guises. During this time of trouble and uncertainty, people once again turned to
their churches not to find stability or wail against ever-present and pervasive
changes, but instead to find a companion—a pilgrim—with whom to journey. The
changing Church met the changing world by providing a compassionate response to
people: "In every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the
signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel."
The "Dark Night" of St. John is important not
because it forces us to face the darknesses of life, but because in facing these
darknesses we must make a response. This was the challenge facing Our Lady of
Pompei through much of the 1980s and early 1990s. During this time, many
wondered what would become of our schools, especially the high school as its
enrollment steadily dropped. Many were concerned about the changing
neighborhood. Still others concerned themselves with the local church of
Baltimore and their home—Our Lady of Pompei. What was to become of the
worshipping life here? What was to become of the outreach programs? In short,
what was to become of Our Lady of Pompei?
Then, during the parish celebration of its patroness in 1991,
the entire congregation gasped when told the darkest of news: the Vincentian
Fathers of the Neapolitan Province, who had committed themselves to this
community in 1928, decided that they were no longer able to fulfill this
commitment. The question many asked regarding the future of Our Lady of Pompei
became the only question overnight. The remainder of the Feastday weekend became
less of a celebration and more of a lament, with "What will happen?"
as its mantra.
The "Dark Night" had been faced, now what was to be
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved
Transforming the beloved in her Lover
St. John of the Cross
Prior to that Feastday celebration of 1991, Fr. Lou Esposito,
pastor, had been preparing for his announcement regarding the future of Pompei.
In a letter dated August 11 of that year to his Superior General, Fr. Lou
identified the current situation in these words:
The parish and the neighborhood are
currently experiencing very difficult times. New realities are setting in:
the polarization of the population which consists of two groups: the very
young and the very old; the increased presence of transients…; [and]
growing financial difficulties for the parish and the people.
What was the response to the darkness faced that year? The
response was this: Even though the Vincentian Fathers would no longer be with
us, life would go on—Pompei would survive. The future of our parish would now
lie with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Fr. Lou Esposito, over the course of
1991, petitioned Archbishop Keeler to take charge of Our Lady of Pompei. In that
letter of 1991 to his Superior General, Fr. Esposito spoke of the decision he
made "after a long period of storming heaven and earth." He had the
sad duty of requesting the necessary dispensation from his religious vows in
order to be incarnated into the Archdiocese of Baltimore. This was the beginning
of a response, but now we had to take a more active role.
In the spirit of true biblical lament, our worries and fears
as we faced the darkness brought us to new found hope. This hope, the Christian
vision that grounds our lives, guided us then and continues to do so now as we
face new darknesses. In facing such bleak realities we can join our voices with
St. John of the Cross, as we pray:
I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.
St. John of the Cross
"Free To Hope …"
Happy is the one whose hope is in the Lord God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry;
sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind;
lifts up those who are bowed down;
watches over the sojourners;
upholds the widow and the fatherless; and brings the wicked to ruin.
The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!
The "Dark Night" of St. John is not over, but
continues to instruct and move us ever closer to God. Where, then, is this
freedom to hope? Where can hope be found for the faith community of Our Lady of
Pompei in such uncertain times and conditions? Where can hope be found in events
such as the Holocaust, the Genocide in Kosovo, the killings at Columbine, the
deaths of JFK, Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law? Where is that for which we
long? We, like our ancestor in faith, Job, once more wail against the night
dismissing the easy answers of those around us, and demanding God to be present—demanding
God to answer that most urgent of questions: "Why, O Lord, why?!"
In St. John’s work Dark Night, he never speaks of
hope directly. When we face the dark country of the worlds within and without,
most of the time we do not consider such ideas as hope explicitly. Instead, we
know that in the deepest recesses of our human condition there is something
guiding us, something to which we cling. Perhaps St. John is teaching us that we
are free to hope if we know how to read the signs. This is also one the great
teachings of the Second Vatican Council, found in the Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World: "In every age, the Church carries
the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in
the light of the Gospel."
With the departure of the Vincentian presence in 1991, Our
Lady of Pompei saw the end of an era, but the beginning of something new. This
faith community located in the side streets of Highlandtown would find new task
and challenges as it continued its mission of proclaiming and modeling the
Kingdom of God. Our Lady of Pompei responded to the challenges from within and
without—the challenges of the "Dark Night"—and continues to
respond to these challenges, often times in the brightness of the noonday, far
away from the darkness of night. Our community has heard the voices of prophets
calling us to new vision; the voices of the abused, neglected, and forgotten
calling us to be attentive; the voice of children, young people, and the elderly
calling us to remember their needs as we also remember the needs of the others.
In short, our community listens to these voices, is interpreted by these voices,
interprets these voices, and becomes these voices. In this way, we become the
voice of God—the living stones of the New Kingdom!
The faith community of Our Lady of Pompeii is one expression
of the Church—the local church—meeting the needs of the people. We live and
work in the city! Many believe that city is not a safe place anymore or that it
is not somewhere that we should be. Nevertheless, our community has once again
committed itself to something that many deem unwise: we have committed ourselves
through active involvement in the future of this small city neighborhood—Highlandtown.
We love this city … we love this neighborhood … It has an atmosphere. Just
take a walk through its storied streets and one can experience the Old World
charm of neighbors. From the woman making her morning walk to church as she has
done for thirty years, to the man sitting with his comrades on the
"stoop" discussing the days past. From the noise of children as they
play, to the sounds of neighbors as they share their latest humorous tale. Yes
… this neighborhood does have atmosphere. But, still, why should we love the
city? Consider the reflection of one city priest:
We remember that Jesus was a city
person. He prayed over the city; he loved the city; he wept over the city;
he worked in it. He loved the city crowds. He walked often through the
city and knew it well. He celebrated the first Eucharist in the city and
it was there that Jesus initiated his community, the Church. Jesus died at
the gate of the city, There, he rose from the dead. His final words to his
disciples were, "Stay in the city, then, until you are clothed with
the power from on high" (Luke 24:49).
Jesus’ love for the city and his
compassion and concern for the multitudes, for the "little
ones," is an imperative for a Contemplative Prayer Community in the
heart of the city. Jesus is deep in the heart of this metropolitan city.
We are committed to the city because it is our home … it is
holy … it is where this faith community finds Jesus! We, the members of the
faith community of Our Lady of Pompei, can understand hope because we share this
common history which is at once local and universal. We can hope because we
love. We are a people in love with our God, our world, and our faith community!
This love propels us to hope for a better tomorrow. And so, hope, in the words
of this same theologian, is:
the reach of the human person for a
future that is possible, desired, but beyond the person’s ability to
achieve it. The reach of hope, unlike mere wishing, is at the heart of
personal life. It is a reach for what defines our very selves. Thus,
hoping is an active reach by which we move into our future with courage
In our hoping for the future of Our Lady of Pompei, we
redefine ourselves. We become that for which we long! The future of the faith
community of Our Lady of Pompei lies in us. It lies deep within our very being.
In our reach for the future—our reach beyond ourselves—we must
simultaneously reach deep within so that we may define ourselves in order to
define the future of our faith community.
From "Christ: Yesterday—Today—Forever" the
preface to the Diamond Jubilee program by Nunzio N. D’Alessio, a member of
Our Lady of Pompei since childhood. He attended both Our Lady of Pompei
Elementary and Secondary Schools, and was active in both parish and campus
Sisters, Mission Helpers Of The Sacred Heart
The Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart have been in the
parish since August of 1983. Although the original group consisted of five
Sisters, there are only two left. The Sisters are involved in the parish life in
various ways: census work, ministry to the sick and the elderly, religious
instructions, service as lectors and Eucharistic Ministers.
The Sisters closed the convent in July 2001.