In September 2002, I was assigned to cover a Mass at St. Gregory the Great Church on North Gilmor Street near North Avenue. I had never been to Mass at a predominantly black Catholic parish, and I had no idea what I was about to experience.
Parishioners from northern Baltimore County’s Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley had formed a partnership with St. Gregory and wanted to celebrate Mass with the community.
It was a Sunday that I will never forget. Attending Mass at St. Gregory was unlike any Catholic Mass I had ever experienced. The church was packed. There was a special place for the “elders” of the community in the front pews. You couldn’t help but be moved and inspired by the gospel choir. There was so much clapping and singing and genuine enthusiasm for worship.
Carla Waller, a St. Francis Xavier parishioner who was in attendance said, “I can’t really express it with words. It was very uplifting and moving. I think it was a wonderful, cultural experience.”
The leadership behind that joyful liturgy was Monsignor Damien Nalepa – a Pittsburgh native who served as pastor of the inner-city church since 1981. He was small in stature, with a distinctive voice and rather large glasses.
But what I learned that day and would come to discover in many moments over the next decade, is that Monsingor Nalepa had a huge heart for his parish and the surrounding community.
Outreach has been a hallmark at St. Gregory, which also receives generous support from suburban parishes. That support is vital, because the need in the community is great.
“Many people are unemployed, there are a lot of single parents, housing is an issue and drug addiction is a major problem, so our ministries are determined and fashioned by the needs of the community,” said Monsignor Nalepa in a 2009 interview, the same year the parish celebrated its 125th anniversary.
“Our own people are not the richest in the world, but they respond to that appeal to reach out, and I think that’s my greatest pride in this,” Monsignor Nalepa said. “The people really understand that no matter how much we have, we are called to share that. Our people respond very generously to any appeal. What little they have, they are willing to give.”
Monsignor Nalepa gave too. From participating in peace vigils to supporting a gun buy back program, the pastor of 31 years and priest of more than 40 years gave all that he had to support his parish and community. Monsignor Nalepa died Aug. 4. He celebrated a funeral Mass earlier and then passed away while resting in his chair. St. Gregory and the city of Baltimore have lost a great leader. May he rest in peace.