Ocean City Maryland: Saint Mary Star-of-the-Sea Catholic Church
"An Ocean City Original"Ocean City, Maryland sprang to life on July 4, 1875 with the grand opening of the Atlantic Hotel, located on the beach between Wicomico and Somerset Streets. The hotel's one hundred twelve rooms lodged about two hundred fifty guests. It stood virtually alone on the beach, the first tentative step toward creating a town that at the time existed mostly in the minds of a small group of investors.
The new seaside resort enjoyed modest success in its first year but business fell off in 1876 as potential visitors opted to attend centennial celebrations in nearby Philadelphia and elsewhere. However, the opening of three new hotels in 1877; the Seaside Hotel, at the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Wicomico Street directly behind the Atlantic, the Ocean House, farther down the beach just below what is now South 1st Street, and the Excursion House, built by the railroad at Worcester Street to accommodate those visiting for the day, brought the crowds back to Ocean City that summer. Nearly three thousand people were reportedly in town for the Fourth of July holiday. Among the new visitors was the Right Reverend Henry C. Lay, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton (Maryland), who preached to audiences in one of the parlors of the Atlantic Hotel, the first organized religious services held in Ocean City. Also visiting that year was Bishop Thomas A. Becker of the Catholic diocese of Wilmington (Delaware), who had traveled to the Atlantic Hotel with several of his colleagues for a religious retreat by the sea.
The John Myers Cottage on the south side of Wicomico Street just off the Boardwalk is pictured above. The first Catholic services in Ocean City were conducted in one of its lower rooms.
Courtesy of Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum
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 underway. 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 (see 1875 plat at the end of this article). The parcel today is the site of Dolle's Candyland and the Cork Bar. It's uncertain whether services were held in the chapel during the 1877 season, but it was functioning in 1878, as related in this report in The Baltimore Sun on August 17:
"The Roman Catholic visitors worship in an adjacent cottage [to the Atlantic Hotel], where, on a rudely constructed altar, mass has been almost daily offered by one or more of the several priests of the archdiocese who have been here this season."
A Catholic Church
Bishop Becker undoubtedly recognized that the tiny one room chapel was only a temporary arrangement, and he began looking for other property on which to construct a more permanent presence. His search culminated in his acquisition of three lots for $100 collectively, evidenced in the Worcester County land records by a deed dated May 25, 1878. The three lots (numbers 55, 73 and 74) formed a contiguous L-shaped parcel on the southwest corner of Baltimore Avenue and Talbot Street (see plat). Bishop Becker pressed ahead with his plans for erecting a suitable place for Catholic worship on the Ocean City beach. The Sun report from August 17, 1878 continues with this update on his progress:
"Bishop Becker, has selected a site for a chapel and residence adjoining. Mr. John Stack, the well-known Baltimore builder, is here [Ocean City] in this connection, and has with him the plan of the structure to be submitted to the bishop. The building will commence without delay, and will do credit to the architectural efforts of this place. The site is on the beach facing the wild ocean waters and adjacent to the Seaside and Atlantic Hotels."
The report goes on to provide these precise details of the planned structure:
Mr. John Stack, Jr., of Baltimore, is the architect, and his plan shows a handsome chapel, in style purely gothic, but flattened to suit the climate and location. The chapel proper is 36 by 26 feet, and 22 feet high in the clear, with organ gallery, sanctuary 16 by 18 feet, and sacristy 12 by 16 feet. The floor is raised above the sand surface five feet on piles. A vestibule 6 by 10 feet forms the main entrance. The church is lighted by a large double gothic window, with quarterfoil [sic] or rose centre, overlooking the gallery, and on each side four windows 3 by 9 feet, and still two smaller windows, one on each side of the vestibule. Projecting gables and a neat gothic cross will ornament the edifice. The sanctuary, octagonal in shape, will connect the chapel and episcopal cottage, which, in design, is also gothic, but somewhat flatter than the church. The church windows are to be of stained glass of neat design, some of them to be introduced by leading Catholics visiting here."
Bishop Becker now had the land and a blueprint for a new Catholic church; the only thing he lacked was funding for construction. That step, as might be expected, proved to be the most difficult. A Sun reporter offered this assessment on July 21, 1879:
"It had been proposed to build a Catholic chapel here [Ocean City] this season, but the project will hardly be carried out so soon. Bishop Becker, of Wilmington, and a number of Maryland and Delaware priests, who were here last season, gave impetus to the movement. Mr. Charles G. Nicholson, of Baltimore, started a subscription. At the services today [July 20] it was announced that Bishop Becker had purchased the site for a chapel, and the subscriptions were renewed."
Adequate funding was eventually secured and everything was in place to commence work on the new building by May 1880, according to this account in The Sun:
"May 16, 1880 : A Catholic church of handsome pattern will also be built of wood, 48 by 29 feet, on ground purchased three years ago by Bishop Becker, of Wilmington, Del. This will be the first church on the site of the new city. It is understood that a contract has been signed and material secured for the building already, and workmen will begin operations towards the close of this month."
Construction was completed by the end of August. Ocean City's first church was christened "St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea", although no reports have been located regarding a dedication ceremony that summer. But a letter written on August 25, 1880 from a visitor in Ocean City to the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts serves as confirmation:
"What is the name of your church?" I asked a lady whom I had observed taking thither most of her brood of eight, both morning and evening. "Star of the Sea," she answered. "Yes," repeated a boy of 13 at her feet, looking up with that smile children use speaking of those they love, "St. Mary, Star of the Sea." Catholics, young or old, never seem to think their church a good place to get away from.
St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea Catholic Church
The growth in the number of parishioners served by St. Mary followed the growth of the town of Ocean City. By 1907, church officials believed it was necessary to expand the little sanctuary in order to accommodate that growth. Bishop John J. Monaghan of the Wilmington diocese, a frequent visitor in Ocean City, took charge of the effort. The renovation program added a new transept, which increased the building's width by sixteen feet, and its length was increased proportionately. A gothic tower was erected on the northeast corner of the church, and a large bell was installed in it "whose sweet and solemn tones can be heard all over the town and for miles around". Bishop Monaghan presided at the dedication ceremony, which took place on August 6, 1908, the Feast of the Transfiguration, and included priests from the Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington D.C. dioceses. St. Mary became a mission church of the newly formed parish of St. Francis de Sales of Salisbury in 1910.
The church never made use of the lot (number 73) that fronted on Dorchester Street, between Baltimore and Philadelphia Avenues. In 1927, the recently incorporated Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company was looking for land on which to build a new station house. On November 25 of that year, Msgr. Edward Dougherty deeded the lot to the town for the use of the Fire Company for the nominal sum of $10. The station house that was erected there in 1928 remains operational today.
Msgr. Eugene Stout oversaw a renovation and expansion of St. Mary in 1939, which doubled its seating capacity. The number of parishioners increased to about one hundred twenty 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. Additional adjoining land parcels were donated to the parish by John Hitchens and Daniel Trimper, Jr. in 1956 and by Sandy Plains again in 1966.
Our Lady Star of the Sea parish, comprising the historic church on Talbot Street and its larger mission church on Philadelphia Avenue, was officially established in 1967. Msgr. Stout, who had lobbied the Bishop of the Wilmington diocese for the creation of a new parish for Ocean City, was named its pastor. On January 18, he announced a major expansion plan for Holy Savior, estimated to cost more than $300,000 and to involve more than ten thousand square feet of new construction. The Daily Times (Salisbury) provided this description of the planned improvements:
"Additions will be built on all sides of the present structure. Construction will be of concrete, brick and steel. It will be air-conditioned.
A new feature will be a series of colonnades in front and on the sides of the church building. The present bell tower will be removed. Eventually, plans call for the erection of a spire. But the spire is not included in the present contract."
This photo, from The Daily Times of May 6, 1967 shows the expansion project at Holy Savior (not St. Mary) well under way.
St. Mary held a centennial celebration in 1977 to commemorate the opening of the first Catholic chapel in Ocean City by Bishop Becker. The celebration also marked the culmination of a restoration project at the old church that had been led by the pastor, Rev. Stephen Connell.
Bishop Becker's vestments and chalice were used at the celebratory Mass. A new facility at Holy Savior that opened in the spring of 2008 was named the Father Connell Parish Center, in honor of Rev. Connell's service to Ocean City's Catholic community.
St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea and Holy Savior Church are both active today, offering a full Mass schedule and monthly calendar of events, as well as conducting numerous religious and community outreach programs. The vibrant ministry is currently led by Rev. John P. Klevence. It has been a truly remarkable journey from humble beginnings for "An Ocean City Original".
A Few Images From The Past
Above: St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea Catholic Church (right) and residence (left) before the renovation and expansion of 1907 - 1908. Note that there is no bell tower on the right side of the chuch building. This card was mailed from Ocean City to Baltimore on July 23, 1907.
Below: St. Mary as it appeared ca. 1912 (postmarked August 2). The bell tower, added in 1908, was a striking addition to the church. Mass has ended and the handsomely dressed parishioners are presumably heading off for their Sunday dinner.
Above: A 1920s view of the church looking south down Baltimore Avenue, which was a two-way street at the time. "Peg" mailed this card to Mrs. A. Corliss in Baltimore on July 15, 1935.
Below: The church was renovated and expanded in 1939, and the bell tower is now incorporated into the overall design of the building. Mrs. Matthews writes to her daughter Virgo in Baltimore on August 17, 1945:
Make some soup"
Above: Another view from the 1940s (production date: 1941). Mailed from Ocean City to White Hall MD on June 23, 1947: "Glad you
enjoyed yourself at C. P."
Below: St. Mary Star-of-the-Sea Church in the late 1960s (a 1965 Ford Mustang is visible parked on Talbot Street alongside the church). Mailed in 1976.
Above: Holy Savior Catholic Church, Philadelphia Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets, ca. 1957, about three years after its dedication.
Below: The substantially enlarged Holy Savior Church ca. 1975. The spire, not included in the original expansion project of 1967 - 1968, has now been added, replacing the former bell tower.
Original plat of Ocean City: August 31, 1875
Lot 7, site of cottage owned by John B. Myers, a lower room of which was used as a Catholic chapel from 1877 to 1880 (now Dolle's Candyland)
Lots 55, 73 and 74, conveyed to Bishop Becker on May 25, 1878 (lot 73 was deeded to the town on November 25, 1927 for use of Volunteer Fire Company)
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