OCEAN CITY, MD. – For more than a century, it has welcomed people to the gentle ocean breezes of this coastal oasis.
St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Church began in the early days of this bustling beach town, when there were little more than a few beach cottages. Since those early days, it has been a cornerstone of community life here.
On April 29, ground was broken for a project which will both expand and offer a much-needed face lift to the old church on Baltimore Avenue. Plans call for bathroom facilities, meditation garden, sacristy, bridal changing room and parking for the priest, according to Mitchell Parker, chair of the building committee.
“It’s the oldest church in town,” Parker said.
Plans call for at least the hard construction to be done late this summer in August, he said. Some work — like the meditation garden could take a bit longer — but construction is expected to proceed at a brisk pace.
In the meantime, parishioners will celebrate Mass at Holy Savior located on Philadelphia Avenue. Mass is also held on Saturday at 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day at Bethany United Methodist Church.
Parker explained that the church is old and small, too small for the influx of summer residents. “Parking is difficult,” he said.
The addition will be located on the site of the former rectory, which had been demolished previously. While much will change, the building committee has made sure the beautiful old lines of the church will remain intact. Parker said the addition will “complement” while not overpowering the appearance. “It is not going to overwhelm the original structure.”
“Visiting that year (1877) was Bishop Thomas A. Becker of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, who had traveled to the Atlantic Hotel with several of his colleagues for a religious retreat by the sea,” according to a history of the church written by Gordon Katz.
“The Catholic clergymen perceived a need during their 1877 visit for a Catholic ministry in the fledgling resort, and Bishop Becker took the lead in getting one under way. He arranged for the use of a room in a cottage rented by John Tracy, the proprietor of the Atlantic Hotel, as a provisional Catholic chapel. The cottage, one of the first erected in town, was situated on a lot at the south corner of Atlantic Avenue and Wicomico Street that was owned by Philadelphian John Myers, a stockholder in the Atlantic Hotel Company. The parcel today is the site of Dolle’s Candyland and the Cork Bar,” according to Katz’s history.
That small chapel would very soon become St. Mary’s.
“Msgr. Eugene Stout oversaw a renovation and expansion of St. Mary in 1939, which doubled its seating capacity,” according to Katz. “The number of parishioners increased to about 120 by 1949, adequately served during the off-season at the downtown church by two masses and catechism classes for the children. But the summer season crowds required some seven to nine masses each Sunday, two of which had to be conducted in the auditorium of the Ocean City High School, at the corner of Baltimore Avenue and 3rd Street. Foreseeing the need for a larger facility, Msgr. Stout arranged in 1949 for the Salisbury parish to acquire nine adjacent lots along the west side of Philadelphia Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets from the developer of the new Neptune Development, Sandy Plains, Inc. Construction of a new mission church, which was named Holy Savior, began in 1953, with the cornerstone laying ceremony taking place on August 9. The new church, which was open only during the summer season, held its first services in 1954.”
A bridal changing room will be a welcome addition because the church is a popular choice for weddings, he said. A small meditation garden will also provide a quiet spot to reflect and think.
The addition will also help make St. Mary’s fully handicapped accessible.
Some work, like replacing the church roof and repairing the bell tower has already been completed. The church will be painted, both inside and out, so “it will go for another 100 years,” he laughed.
The actual fundraising campaign is only just beginning, but the church has already received a matching grant of $300,000 from an anonymous donor, he said. That means each dollar given will be matched, doubling that $300,000 to $600,000.
Parker said the renovations are receiving tremendous support. “We like to believe the whole community is looking forward to it,” he said.
For some like Parker, it is very much a labor of love. “I was baptized and married in that church.”