Our Lady of Pompeii, Baltimore, Maryland


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 for roots.

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 Club.

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 the faithful."

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 Dolphin:

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 the debates.

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, we read:

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 history.

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…"

"Dark Night"

One dark night
Fired with love’s longings
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now stilled

—Dark Night,
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 country."

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 measure."

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 our response?

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

—Dark Night,
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.

—Dark Night
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!

Psalm 146:5-10

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 and perseverance.

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 ministries.


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.

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