The Battle Over St. Stanislaus
Just after a late-afternoon thunderstorm, the corner of Aliceanna and Ann streets in Fells Point is alive with activity. Horns honk. A woman speaks through a PA system. A man dressed in flowing robes and a tall hat impersonates a Roman Catholic cardinal. A woman walks through the intersection dressed in an old friar’s costume. Placards are propped up on the walkers of elderly women—one, dressed in a white T-shirt, oversized black oxford shirt, and a floppy hat, literally hangs onto a lamppost for support.
It’s just an ordinary afternoon for the St. Stan’s protesters.
Since around the end of March, a dedicated group of community members has claimed this spot periodically to make a point to passers-by. They want to save 1.7 acres of Fells Point history from being razed to make way for 23 $800,000 condominiums.
For most of the 20th century, St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church was the hub of the Polish Catholic community in Fells Point—a refuge from rough living and the model of 1950s-style wholesomeness. But St. Stan’s closed in 2000, and many of the buildings that share the 700 block of South Ann Street—the church, the friary, St. Stanislaus school, and the enormous parish hall—stand vacant. Rumor has it that the elaborate Eastern European décor of the upper and lower church sanctuaries is collecting dust. Virtually no one has been inside the church itself in more than five years. On Aliceanna Street, torn window shades and bumper stickers decorate the windows of the friary and litter collects at the gigantic wooden door of the parish hall.
The only inhabited building of the property is the convent, located just to the south of the church on Ann Street. Mother Seton Academy, a private, tuition-free school for underprivileged middle-school students, has been based there for more than 12 years. If current plans for development go through, the school will vacate the convent and expand into the church, retrofitting the upper and lower sanctuaries with classrooms, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium. Artifacts from the sanctuaries, including pews, altars, and religious paintings, will be saved, likely either sold for charity or donated. The surrounding buildings will be replaced by high-end condominiums with underground parking.
“Call, write, or e-mail the Franciscans, Mother Seton Academy, and the cardinal—sign our petition online,” Barbara Cromwell, program coordinator for the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point—commonly referred to as the Preservation Society—carefully enunciates into the PA system’s microphone in front of St. Stan’s. The protesters are giddy because the weather is nice—car windows are down, which means their message is getting through.
Those they oppose are not represented on the corner this afternoon. St. Anthony of Padua Province, the group of Franciscan friars that owns the entire property and rents out the convent to Mother Seton Academy, is based in Ellicott City. And then there’s Howard County-based Iron Horse Properties—also known as the Hampton Group—which won the contract to develop the condominiums that will nearly encircle the newly remodeled church/school. (Two principals in the company are board members for Mother Seton Academy.) Columbia-based Thomas Builders plans to purchase the property from Iron Horse and has begun securing the proper permits for demolition and construction.
That doesn’t dissuade Fells Point’s Polish and preservation communities—some of whom are part of the ruckus on the corner. After saving the neighborhood from proposed interstate highways in the early 1970s, many are ready for the next battle.
“We stopped the road from coming through here,” picketer Joanne Mazurek says. “We’re just trying to get the developers, Mother Seton, and the Franciscans to realize that this is not just a valuable piece of dirt.”
“I’d be shouting, if I could,” says Jean Hepner, grasping a lamppost with all of her might—her walker is being used to prop up her placard. “I have a paralyzed vocal cord,” she whispers.
Hepner also protested the interstate development more than 30 years ago. “And we won that one,” she notes. “I’m not Polish, and I’m not Catholic, either. But this is important. This is part of our neighborhood. That’s the original Polish Catholic church in Baltimore.” She points to St. Stan’s. She adds that the developer’s plans will cause “a terrible, jagged hole in our neighborhood.”
Mother Seton Academy has a contract for the church, and the developers and builders are going forward with their plans for the remainder of the property. But nothing can be finalized until a court case is resolved between the Franciscans and St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish and Slavic Church Museum, Inc., a group of community members that wishes to turn the church into a museum and community gathering place.
The Preservation Society describes the conflict as David vs. Goliath—a fading traditional neighborhood faces a giant developer and the Catholic Church. The Franciscans see development as inevitability—surging market forces and the church’s economic difficulties demand new approaches to neighborhood and community preservation. A large sign erected in front of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church assures those who read it that there are no plans to tear down the church building, but the community it once served has certainly sustained some damage.
The headquarters for St. Anthony of Padua Province in Ellicott City seems light years from Fells Point. On a clear day, the blue sky stretches out for miles above rural landscapes. Hefty signs announcing new, suburban housing developments punctuate twisting roads. The sounds of construction interrupt the natural voices of a spring day.
A large statue of St. Anthony greets visitors as they wind up a long driveway to the Provincial House. On the right, construction workers are busily tearing down an old barn. (A new barn has already been constructed.) The Provincial House décor is distinctly hotel-like—shiny, mahogany-stained tables with brass hardware, furniture covered in pastel floral upholstery. Everywhere, there are references to Pope John Paul II, and no wonder. St. Anthony’s of Padua Province was created of Polish priests and designed to serve newly immigrant Poles who arrived in America in the early 1900s.
Father Robert Twele, treasurer for the province, leans back in a wing chair just off the lobby. His black shirt and pants are a harsh contrast from the pastel colors of the room, yet he looks completely at home as he fills in the history.
In the late 1800s, canning, lumber, and packaging companies in Fells Point provided work for an influx of Polish Catholic immigrants. Among their immediate concerns, beyond jobs and housing, was to establish a religious home, and so the St. Stanislaus parish began in a private home on the corner of Bond and Fleet streets. In 1880, St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church was blessed and opened for worship. Father Peter Koncz, a Roman Catholic priest who spoke Lithuanian and Polish, was the first pastor. He was murdered in 1888.
“It was so tumultuous,” Twele says. In 1898, more than 400 Polish immigrants broke from Roman Catholic tradition to create the Independent Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Mother of Unceasing Help, which eventually became Holy Cross on South Broadway. The group wanted more self-governance of their parish and to conduct masses in Polish, which they continue to do on alternating Sundays. That independent spirit was evident at St. Stan’s, too, but diocese priests served St. Stanislaus until 1905, when Cardinal James Gibbons asked St. Anthony of Padua Province for assistance.
“At one point Cardinal Gibbons was at St. Stan’s for worship, and parishioners, they forced their way into the rectory,” Twele says. “He and the other priests ran upstairs and called the police. It is at that point that Cardinal Gibbons said to us, ‘I want you to come and try to make peace here.’”
In 1907, in return for their service in Fells Point, the archdiocese gave St. Stanislaus Church to the Franciscans. And with this one unusual decision, the stage was set for today’s controversy. “I don’t know that he was trying to sweeten the pot,” Twele says. “But I do know it was unusual for him to give us the deed to the dirt.”
Between 1907 and the early 1930s, the friars purchased additional property adjacent to the church. The church basement was deepened to make room for a second sanctuary. One by one, the friars purchased or built the surrounding buildings: the parish hall on Aliceanna Street, the friary—which is the last of Fells Point’s 18th-century four-bay captain’s mansions—the school, and the convent, where Mother Seton Academy resides today.
The Franciscans might have owned the dirt, but Fells Point resident Dan Kuc contends that “the Polish immigrants built and paid for these properties. Some of them even mortgaged their houses to raise money to build the church. In the early part of the 20th century, people worked in the cannery canning tomatoes for 5 cents an hour and then gave it to the church.” And so the Polish community laid an emotional and spiritual claim to St. Stan’s that still manifests itself on the corner of Aliceanna and Ann.
“There are many, many different sides” to the controversy surrounding the sale of the church, Twele says, shaking his head. “It’s certainly not as clear-cut and black-and-white as some would like to portray it.”
As he sees it, St. Anthony of Padua Province has been simply trying to help, following the Franciscans’ motto, Pax et Bonum, or Peace and All Good. With an aging population of 153 priests and virtually no savings for their medical care and pensions, St. Anthony of Padua Province saw a much-needed opportunity to raise money to fill this gap. But he and his fellow friars found themselves in the center of an ugly debate.
“And now I sit here and say, ‘Twele, you dummy.’” He smacks his forehead with the palm of his hand.
“Our goal all along was to try to listen, try to respect people’s history, feelings, and culture—but also respect Mother Seton and the bishop and our needs,” he says. “I’ve got old priests to take care of.”
“I started to usher at the church when I was in high school,” says Michael Sarnecki, one of the leading organizers of the effort to preserve St. Stan’s. Sarnecki now lives in Canton, but his grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from Poland to America and settled in the neighborhood around the turn of the 20th century. Sarnecki’s parents moved into an apartment on Fleet Street in 1940, then later bought a home on the same street, and they still live there today.
“Our parish was always very friendly—whether you were white, black, or purple,” he says. St. Stan’s hosted end-of-month dances and a yearly crab feast. Monday night bingo was a neighborhood favorite.
“We never ever were in debt,” Sarnecki adds. When a new roof was needed in the mid-’90s, the parishioners ponied up the $27,000 for repairs. “Within six months, that bill was paid by parishioners.”
So, Sarnecki and other parishioners were concerned when the idea of “twinning”—sharing a pastor with St. Casimir Church in nearby Canton—was first brought up in the late 1990s. “They kept telling us that the area was changing,” he says. “We were getting new people! Percentwise, we lost fewer members than St. Casimir.” When St. Stan’s eventually closed, it had 400 families listed in its registry.
Twele says that there was an attempt to attract new parishioners in Fells Point, but the staunchly defended St. Stan’s tradition of singing Polish hymns made that difficult. He asserts that the twinning and subsequent closure were not about money. “It’s about the simple fact that with the decline in the number of priests, if you continue to make the priests serve smaller and smaller parishes—all you’re going to do is burn the priests out fast,” he says. “There’s a human resource element.”
Twele says he asked the St. Stanislaus parishioners, “Which one of your sons became a priest? The last son of St. Stanislaus parish who entered the Franciscan order was ordained 35 years ago. . . . 35 years was a long time ago! In the golden days of St. Stanislaus, every other year there was someone ordained.”
The two churches were twinned for three years. In March 2000, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that it would be closing St. Stanislaus parish.
“We tried to influence Cardinal [William] Keeler to keep it open,” Dan Kuc says of Baltimore’s archbishop, noting that he and other parishioners assembled a binder of details on how they could meet the archdiocese’s expectations for the church.
“They met with us before Easter, just as a show that they were willing to meet with us,” Kuc says. “But they said it was a done deal. ‘You’re closed,’ they said. They didn’t even respond to our detailed plan that we submitted for revitalizing the parish.”
“The diocese had been looking at this for years,” Twele says. “My understanding is that it didn’t come out of the clear blue sky. If there is not going to be any parish there, we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do with it. The only thing that we know is that there is not going to be a parish there.” (The Baltimore Archdiocese did not return calls for comment.)
After St. Stan’s closed, Twele spoke with representatives of Mother Seton Academy and learned that the school wanted to stay in the old convent building. The school had investigated other sites but decided to stay put.
“It’s the right place for the kids,” Twele says. “It gets them out of the neighborhoods they’re coming from.” And that’s precisely the point—getting inner-city children away from neighborhoods that are a negative influence. The school enrolls between 65 and 70 middle-school students, most of whom do not live in Fells Point.
Mother Seton also wanted to expand and upgrade, so the Franciscans began considering how the school’s needs could be included in the future of the property.
Twele says he realized community members and former parishioners were interested in the property but didn’t know whom to call. So he went to some community meetings and was disheartened by what he saw and heard. “Some people were emotional,” he says. “Some people were abusive.” When he told them that he was already in negotiations with Mother Seton Academy for part of the property, he says he was told that the school shouldn’t be in the neighborhood at all.
Likewise, Michael Sarnecki was not impressed with the Franciscans.
“He would come to meetings and be very arrogant,” Sarnecki says of Twele. “He would speak down to people. If I were to speak to someone like that, my mother would rearrange my teeth.”
The Franciscans considered adaptive reuse—finding new uses for the buildings surrounding St. Stan’s—but structural engineers assured Twele that the friary and school were in bad shape and “highly unlikely for economical reuse,” Twele says. The friars decided to offer much of the property to commercial developers—leaving Mother Seton Academy the convent and some property for expansion and continuing to consider the church building for some sort of community use.
Meanwhile, the Polish former parishioners split into two camps. Twele says that what he calls the “museum group”—the group led by Sarnecki and proposing that all of the buildings be preserved—was “whipped into a frenzy to preserve absolutely everything.” Meanwhile, the “business association,” as Twele calls it, led by Kuc, had a more moderate plan to allow the friary, school, and convent to be demolished, but maintain the church building. The second-floor sanctuary would be a museum. The first floor would be turned into a coffee or gift shop.
According to everyone involved, Twele and these two groups met often in 2002 and ’04—at least a dozen times. Twele insisted the groups come up with business plans for the property, demonstrating how they planned to finance the purchase and upkeep of the building. But Twele refused to state an asking price for the property.
“It was like they were playing a game,” Kuc says. “We felt this was unfair, considering that we had agreed at the beginning to put aside our frustrations with the diocese and the Franciscans. They kept telling us over a period of two years that they would give us an asking price. Finally they told us to find an appraiser and figure the price out ourselves. We saw this as a sign that they would work against us.”
“I argued in favor of getting [outside] appraisals,” Twele says. “It’s like I’m the teacher giving them the answers to the questions.” According to him, in corporate real estate, appraisals were the responsibility of the buyer.
Kuc reports that the $4,000 price tag for an appraiser was too much money to spend, since the property had already been appraised, and Kuc believes Twele had a figure in mind. So he consulted local real estate experts about the situation.
“They laughed,” Kuc says. “They could not believe [the Franciscans] were doing this.”
In the summer of 2003, each group presented its offer. Sarnecki’s museum group, now incorporated as St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish and Slavic Church Museum Inc., offered $325,000, and Kuc’s group offered $107,000. Kuc says his group based its offer on what he had heard Mother Seton Academy proposed to pay for the school. “We felt it was a fair price,” he says.
“The offers were nowhere near what the appraiser told us fair market value was,” Twele says. “You’re telling me this is a priceless building, and you offer this?”
“They were playing games,” Kuc says. “We were sick and tired of being told one thing and finding out that the rules had changed at the last minute. We made an offer that was fair. We said take it or leave it, and our offer was refused.” Kuc’s group stepped out of negotiations.
“That’s ‘rib-chin-ski,’” says Edward Rybczynski’s administrative assistant on the telephone. “You know, the body parts ‘rib’ and ‘chin,’ then add a ‘ski’ on the end.” Rybczynski is the pro bono attorney representing St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish and Slavic Church Museum for the last two years.
“In my first year, first class of law school, I had a professor, a practicing lawyer named Yost—George Yost,” Rybczynski recalls. “He asked a question. ‘What is the most important provision that differentiates us from the rest of the world? The right of contract, the right of property.’”
Today, the museum group contends that the friars reneged on a contract.
Mother Seton’s initial interest in the convent building it now occupies expanded. “As time went on, [Mother Seton] expressed interest in the church building,” Twele says, and at some point in the process, the school offered to purchase the church as well.
Meanwhile, the friars rejected the first offer from the museum group. The group’s second offer included an acceptable price, Twele says, but the supporting information on funding and feasibility was insufficient.
In April 2004, Twele recommended one more meeting at the downtown offices of Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones, the firm representing St. Anthony of Padua Province. This time, the museum group brought Rybczynski along.
“I was happy to see Edward there,” Twele recalls. “He was a good man who was levelheaded.”
Though most of the details had been worked out, there was one lingering point of contention regarding the museum group’s proposed purchase of the church involving a restrictive covenant, Twele remembers. The friars asked that the covenant put in place to limit use of the church building to nonreligious functions. If the buyer of the church violated the covenant—held religious ceremonies such as weddings, masses, or baptisms in the building—the property would revert to Mother Seton Academy. Sarnecki says that “all along, any road blocks they threw up, we agreed to.”
A contract was drawn up and the final draft delivered to Rybczynski in December 2004, with instructions to sign the contract and send it back for signatures from the friars. And that’s what Rybczynski did.
Twele says that the cover letter that was included with the contract he received back asked that the parties continue to discuss details of the covenant. In fact, Rybczynski says, the cover letter requested that the reverting process be explored more fully and that they negotiate a working definition of “religious services.”
But that was the final straw for Twele and the order. The friars made the decision in early 2005 to reject the museum group’s offer and accept Mother Seton Academy’s offer of $400,000 for the church building. (Representatives of Gallagher, Evelius, and Jones could not be reached for comment by press time.)
In January 2006, St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish and Slavic Church Museum filed suit against the Franciscans for breach of contract. On April 24, a judge threw out the friars’ request for dismissal. The case is expected to be heard in the fall. Until then, plans for development are ongoing, but no action can be taken on the property.
The staff of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point sits around a table in the back dining room of Bertha’s on the corner of Broadway and Lancaster streets. Over mussels, shrimp salad, and chicken livers, the group bids goodbye to its latest intern, a high school student from Towson. And as always there’s talk of demolition and preservation. Historic buildings are discussed as if they are children.
“We just go nuts,” Ellen von Karajan, executive director of the Preservation Society, says about demolition. “It’s tears. You have to get over it because there’s always the next time. We’ve lost enough of them. This will be the biggest loss we’ve ever had.”
She is, of course, speaking of St. Stanislaus—not the church itself, since it’s not slated for demolition, but the ornately decorated sanctuaries inside and the buildings surrounding it. Von Karajan admits that she’s never seen the church sanctuaries, which are decorated in old-world fashion with a Byzantine flair. Only the Franciscans and the developers have been inside recently.
But she has seen photographs of the interior. “It’s just beautiful,” she says. “You have no idea looking on the outside how beautiful it is on the inside.”
In 2004, the Franciscan friars set out to find a developer who would work with the school and be sensitive to the Fells Point community’s architecture, Twele says. They entertained offers from nearly 20 development firms. “We told the developers that the best proposal was not necessarily best in terms of the price tag, but best in terms of what we were trying to accomplish,” Twele says.
In January 2005, the friars signed a contract with Iron Horse Properties, which Twele says did not offer the highest bid. The developers in turn are selling the property to Thomas Builders, which will demolish the convent, school, parish hall, and friary, leaving the facade of the four-bay captain’s mansion, and build condominiums with underground parking. Two principals of Iron Horse—James Joyce and Ray Giudice—are members of the Mother Seton Academy Board of Directors.
“Any member of the development team that is on the board of Mother Seton Academy, their profits are going back to the school,” says attorney Marty Cadogan, who represents Iron Horse and spoke for Joyce and Giudice. “The builder is donating a significant amount of the profits to Mother Seton Academy.”
But members of the Preservation Society are not particularly pleased with the design. Although they’re happy with how the Ann Street exterior of St. Stan’s will be preserved—including restoration of the bell tower and removal of the plastic sheeting that covers the stained-glass windows on the front of the church—they are upset at the prospect of losing historical buildings.
Denise Whitman, associate director for the Preservation Society, scoffs at the idea that the design maintains the flavor of the neighborhood. “Flavor in as much as it’s made of brick,” she says. “I guess it all boils down to what the builder knows how to build.”
That’s a dig at the suburban roots of the developers and builder. Thomas Builders is behind such subdivisions as Catonsville Gateway in Baltimore County and homes around the Chesapeake Hills Golf Course in Calvert County. Preservation is very different from new construction, von Karajan says. Preservationists look for ways to work around structural issues; those versed in new construction are more inclined to bulldoze.
Besides, preservation is difficult when parking is the real issue.
“People are not going to pay that much for a condo and not have two secure parking spaces,” says Kevin Carney, president of Thomas Builders. “The marketplace drives everything, and it really demands two-plus spaces.”
The Preservation Society asserts that developers can have their cake and eat it, too. It enlisted in the help of Richard Wagner, architect with David H. Gleason Associates in Baltimore, to come up with an alternative plan that would create condos within the existing buildings. “We came up with a scheme that saved all of the buildings except for one that is not of any historical value,” Wagner says.
“It works,” von Karajan says of Wagner’s plan. It generates profit by creating 25 condominiums—10 townhouses and 15 apartments. It allows the school to expand, and it preserves the buildings and the church’s sanctuaries.
“The architecture [of the current plan] is clearly not—to my mind—of the architecture of Fells Point,” Wagner says. “These condos could easily exist in Howard County.”
“Richard Wagner’s plan was a good plan,” Carney says. “We were very appreciative of his effort.” But, he says, the scheme simply did not meet the parking requirements that the market demands.
It’s not just the building style that has people riled. Some Fells Point residents are as upset about outsiders coming in to make these decisions as they are about the decisions themselves.
“It’s kind of an emotionally charged issue,” says a neighborhood businesswoman who declined to be identified. “You see these guys with their Ralph Lauren shirts wanting to change it.”
“Keep them in the suburbs,” she says with a wave of her hand.
Take a stroll down Ann Street at around 3 in the afternoon, and you’ll likely see sights common in most neighborhoods with a school. Cars line up in front of the Mother Seton Academy, waiting for children to stream from the open doors. This bothers some neighborhood residents.
“We’re just too damn congested here anyway,” says the neighborhood businesswoman. “I don’t think the school belongs down here. I think it belongs in Seton Hill. Tearing that church apart to expand the school there, it’s just awful to me. Turning the church over to the school is just dumb.”
She and others wonder why Mother Seton Academy doesn’t relocate to a building that is designed to be a school—like St. Patrick’s on the corner of Broadway and Bank Street or Holy Rosary on Chester Street.
“I believe [Mother Seton is] going to be wasting a lot of money and would be better off in a building already made for a school,” says Deborah Tempera, a local landlord and coordinator of the St. Stan’s picketing events.
Although Mother Seton Academy refused interview requests, it did provide a statement prepared by its attorneys. “While Mother Seton Academy was not a party to any previous negotiations with other potential purchasers, we believe and hope that our current plan will be an asset to the Fells Point community and this neighborhood,” it reads in part.
The statement also contends that the picketing has disrupted school programs and students feel intimidated.
“We regret that as some people have expressed their concerns about the future of this building, the effect has been to intimidate some of our young students and disrupt our educational and spiritual program,” the statement reads. “We expect that these effects have been unintended; we earnestly hope that some consideration will be given these children in the future. They are the ones whom we, in the strongest traditions of the former St. Stanislaus Church, come to serve and benefit.”
Picketers and Preservation Society members seem genuinely surprised and concerned by this allegation. They contend that Mother Seton students were initially curious about the picketing and approached them with questions, but that no one has been hostile toward the students, parents, or teachers. Ellen von Karajan recalls a conversation she had with a student at the school. “He told me, ‘It’s OK. I think you’re fighting a lost cause here, but you have the courage of your convictions,’” she says.
“I’ve talked to those children,” Tempera says. “And I’ve never gotten the impression that they’re upset. I’m very neighborhood conscious.” The statement issued by the school, she says, “came as a big shock to me.”
There have also been reports of children at the school cursing picketers and giving them the finger. The sisters at the school were consulted about this, Tempera says, and the behavior stopped immediately.
But concerns about traffic continue. Tempera says that no traffic study was done regarding the impact of an expanded school and new condominiums. “For the taxes that we pay, we deserve better planning and accountability,” she says.
In the end, someone will be unhappy with the outcome of the St. Stanislaus controversy. As long as there is a glimmer of hope, protesters will continue to shout their message in Fells Point.
“The picketing is going to continue, I can tell you that,” Tempera says. “I can’t tell you how many people thank us for taking time out of our busy schedules to educate them.”
Father Robert Twele, Mother Seton Academy, and Thomas Builders are going forward with their plans.
“Mother Seton is the dog, and I am the tail,” Thomas Builders’ Carney says. “This is about keeping the underprivileged students in a free, private education.”
Von Karajan has entered into a philosophical space. She tells the story of St. Francis, the saint for whom the Franciscans are named.
One day, when St. Francis was praying in his garden, God spoke to him and said, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” St. Francis took this literally. Stealing a bolt of fabric from his father, he attempted to raise money to preserve the church building. Along with his other more notable charities, he went on to restore several ruined churches.
“This is an important piece of the spiritual and caring work the Franciscans did,” von Karajan says. “It should be their legacy, instead of tearing it down. One of the things we have tried to do is call to them to remember.”
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