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A Continuing Care Retirement Community in the City of Baltimore.

RPP Stories

Pope in Baltimore

Each quarter, RPP residents put together a collection stories for the Residents' Review, a magazine for the residents of Roland Park Place. The publication features an array of personal stories, poems and pictures from our vibrant community. Here is a little piece of that publication.

RPP resident Gilbert Sandler shares his recollection of Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore in 1994.

A Pope’s Visit to Baltimore

by Gilbert Sandler

 

 

On October 23, 1994, Pope John Paul II visited Baltimore and was given a tour of the renowned Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street, two miles and five minutes north of Roland Park Place. The event was historic, a high point in the life of the city, televised around the world. Yet the tour, with all its color and pageantry, would not have been possible if, in February of 1904, the great Baltimore fire hadn’t been raging across downtown. If O’Neill’s department store at Charles and Lexington streets hadn’t lain in the path of the fire. If the firemen hadn’t advised Mr. O’Neill that they were going to knock down his store to create a firebreak zone. Or if the wind hadn’t shifted only moments later, if . . . but I am ahead of my story.

On Sunday, February 7, 1904, the Great Baltimore fire began at Redwood and Hopkins Place and, fanned by a vigorous southeast wind, was out control in minutes. The city’s plan to control the fire was to create firebreaks, the theory being that the fire would stop burning when there would be nothing left to burn. So they blew up every building in the fire’s path, and finally the firefighters rushed into O’Neill’s to blow it up, too. But standing there was Thomas O’Neill himself. “Gentlemen,” he said “you will have to blow me up first.”

In his own mind, O’Neill wasn’t taking that great a risk: he felt he knew something the firemen didn’t—he had just rushed back from the Carmelite Convent on Biddle Street, where he begged the nuns to pray for the safety of his store. He was confident of what would happen, and it did—the wind shifted. O’Neill’s was saved, and the idea of a cathedral in gratitude was born. O’Neill died in 1919, leaving money that would eventually go to build a new cathedral in1954. In generations to come, when Baltimoreans tell the story of Pope John II’s visit to Baltimore and to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, this story is intended to help them get it right: the cathedral is there because, during the Baltimore Fire of 1904, Irish immigrant Tom O’Neill, hoping to save his store, prayed for a miracle and got it.

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