Monday, July 16, 2007

Turning Down the House

Long before the archbishops of New York found their way uptown, before Rome sent a representative to Washington, Boston's princes had their palazzo, Los Angeles even became a diocese or Philadelphia's first cardinal settled into a gargantuan named manse on the city line, there was 408 N. Charles Street.

Arguably, it's American Catholicism's most historically significant address: the place from which titans such as Eccleston, Kenrick and Gibbons presided over a national church and handled its dealings with the Holy See, where presidents and princes would call upon the archbishops of Baltimore, and where, for the better part of a century, the US bishops convened in informal sessions that dictated the future of the growing faith in an expansive land.

While practically all his predecessors have lived there since the stone residence was built in the mid-1800s, in a first, the newest of Carroll's line won't be calling it home.

Two days after his appointment to the nation's senior hierarchical post, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien announced at the weekend that he'll be setting up shop further along Charles Street, at the rectory of the Premier See's "New Cathedral" of Mary Our Queen. Though an Archbishop's Suite was built at Baltimore Catholicism's formal seat, dedicated in 1959, none of its potential occupants since has ever made it their prime base on a permanent basis.

While, besides the trappings of history, the traditional residence directly behind the "Old Cathedral" -- the Basilica of the Assumption -- had the practical advantage of being within footsteps of the archdiocesan offices, the move of the newly-named 15th archbishop is doubly significant.

First, it affirms the particular link of his predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler, with the place the outgoing archbishop calls "my Basilica"; Keeler is known to be especially fond of the history-rich residence, and had hoped to be able to remain there in his retirement. (As he said the new archbishop "seems open" to it at Thursday's press conference, the cardinal will also likely maintain, even intensify, his attention to the Basilica's Historical Trust, which is working to retire the rest of its low-seven-figure debt outstanding from the $32 million restoration of the nation's first cathedral.)

Secondly, and especially of note, the veteran priestly formator's occupancy at Mary Our Queen will place him within a minute's walk from St Mary's Seminary, the US' oldest clerical training ground and one of the two soon to be under his oversight. So, the move can be seen as yet another underscoring of Priority #1 behind O'Brien's appointment -- a promotion which he referred to last week as a "thunderbolt" and, so it's said, has left not a few of his confreres "reeling."

The archbishop is making his first visit, a private one, to the cathedral and its grounds today. He'll be installed there on October 1.

To be precise, while most of Baltimore's archbishops have lived at the "Basilica Rectory," O'Brien is the first in 150 years not to shirk the residence per se, but the venerable plot. On his arrival in US Catholicism's birthplace in 1974, Archbishop William Borders took for himself the quaint 1860s "Sexton's Lodge" located outside the Assumption's front door, leaving the manor house to his predecessor, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan.

Keeping with his penchant for simplicity, Borders remained in the tiny red-brick dwelling (featuring one narrow, obscenely steep staircase) until decamping for a retirement home shortly after his 90th birthday. The reason wasn't so much due to his age, but the intended conversion of the Lodge into the Basilica's gift shop and the administrative offices of the Trust.

In other terna news, the Pope is said to finally have the dossier for the bishopric of Pittsburgh on his desk. The final shortlist, received in Rome last month, was reportedly brought up at the last pre-summer meeting of the Congregation for Bishops in late June. An announcement ending the year-plus-long vacancy, created by the promotion of Donald Wuerl to Washington, is expected within "weeks."