Immaculate Conception Church History

Chapter One

The early days in Towson gave little hint that the tiny, unimportant hamlet was to become the county seat of a large, bustling metropolitan community. Though records reveal George Washington passed through the area, these is no indication that the Father of Our Country paused for refreshments at the Towson Tavern (licensed in 1768).

Old Church
The first mass was celebrated here
by Fr. Manley

It was not until 1824 that the name “Towsontown” appears in assessment records. Some fifteen years later, in 1839, the Methodists established Epsom Chapel on East Joppa Road. Catholics had not been numerous in the Towson area. Baltimore City had but a single parish in colonial times. St. Peter’s, founded in 1770, later became the Cathedral parish in 1806 when Father John Carroll was elected the first American bishop. Catholics living in Long Green Valley met for Mass at the Jenkins Homestead before building this county’s first church on Carroll Manor Road in 1822. A little closer to Towson, St. James the Less was established on Aisquith Street, Baltimore, in 1838, followed by St. Mary’s in Govanstown, in 1849, and St. Joseph’s, Texas, 1852. Catholics who resided in the Towsontown area traveled long distances to attend Mass at the Church Lane in Texas or to Homewood Avenue and Charles Street; some of them walked several miles, and even those families affluent enough to have carriages and wagons faced jolting trips over dirt roads or along the graveled turnpikes where a fee was demanded at each toll gate.

A referendum in January 1854, selected Towsontown as the future county seat when Baltimore City and its rural surroundings made a complete political separation. Construction of the courthouse and jail were completed by 1854, and streets were soon laid out, lots measured off, ground-rents established, and a row of lawyers’ offices built. In 1863 a horse car line began to provide hourly service to downtown Baltimore linking Towson, which was fast developing into an active, thriving community.

It was in 1880 that a Towson lawyer, N. Charles Burke, called a meeting of a few local Catholics in his office in the Masonic Building, Towson, on December 16, resulting in the appointment of a committee of five to “wait upon” Archbishop Gibbons in Baltimore to obtain the authority to pursue the establishment of a church. In addition to Mr. Burke, the other committee members were lssac Hartman, Julius Rudiger, T. C. Linzey and S. C. Tomey.1

Msgr. Lyman, R.D.

On May 14, 1881, the Maryland Journal 2 reported that the Catholics had purchased a lot on the west side of Highland Avenue between Chesapeake and Pennsylvania Avenues. Two weeks later, on May 19, the Very Reverend Dwight E. Lyman, R.D., Pastor of St. Mary’s Church, called a meeting at the parish to plan for erecting a “small chapel” in Towsontown. The committee members, N. C. Burke, Julius Rudiger, L. H. Urban and S. C. Tomay, assumed responsibility for raising the $5,000 needed for the project. The Journal commented that a new church “would enhance the value of the lots in the section in which it is built.”3

Despite “gratifying progress in the matter of subscriptions,” the committee was unable to buy the Highland Avenue lot. A letter from Rev. Lyman found in the Archdiocesan archives disclosed that the attempt to get up a new church in Towsontown was a complete failure as no one was willing to give more than a few dollars, even to buy the land. “So we had to abandon the project until better times or some persons settle there who will show more interest and generosity towards it.” Two years later, no lot had been purchased, but Monsignor Lyman established a mission in the second story of a store owned by Mary Shealey, a brick building erected in 1879 on the site of the former shops at “Flat Iron Square.” During the week, the hall was used as the Armory of the Towsontown Guards, a State militia unit composed of veterans of both armies of the Civil War. This inauspicious site was the birthplace of our parish, also serving as Burgoyne’s Band Hall and in 1893, with a new tower, became the Towson Engine House, serving as the fire department until 1955.4 By April 15, 1883, Mrs. Julius Rudiger had organized the first Sunday Schools of the fledgling parish.

Rev. Manley
Rev. Manley

On April 29,the Reverend Dominic Manley, chaplain of Notre Dame College Convent, who had been assigned to the mission, using a “temporary altar and kneeling Stools,”6 celebrated a low Mass for 150 people, the first recorded Catholic service in or near present-day Towson. By June of 1884, the congregation had purchased a lot on Ware Avenue, and according to the Maryland Journal, “preparations for the foundations of a frame edifice to cost about $2,000 has been commenced.”7 It was purposed to erect a frame building which could later be used as a school. Mr. William Kennedy was the architect for the building.

An August article reported that the framework of the church was up; the carpentry work, under the direction of Mr. Scully, was moving forward “on Barron [sic] Avenue, in Towson.”8 (The papers had dropped the “town” from “Towsontown.”) By October 20, the building was sufficiently complete to hold a benefit under the direction of Mrs. M. A. Welby, with “fancy tables” managed by Mesdames L. H. Urban and Julia Rudiger and the Missess Molly Ady, Emma Hunt, and Phenia Bokel.9  The December 13th issue of the Maryland Journal reported St. Paul’s on Ware Avenue was 30 by 70 feet with pews for 240 people. Though the altar had not been installed, the first Mass was held on Sunday, December 20, 1884, and Father Manley celebrated a High Mass at nine o’clock on Christmas morning. The papers reported the new chapel and sanctuary walls had been most tastefully adorned in evergreens by the ladies of the congregation and the choir had been augmented by additional voices.

An early report by Father Manley reported that the October fair had raised almost the full $ 1,000 needed to pay for the lot. Father Manley’s “Notae” also indicated that Monsignor Lyman supervised the construction of the church, assisted by George H. Wheeler of Towson.

On January 11, 1885, Father Manley said his last Mass in Towson, and subsequently joined the Mill Hill Fathers, now known as the Josephites, and later served as rector of Epiphany Apostolic College, in the Walbrook section of northwest Baltimore.13

The Reverend Ebenezer E. Maynadier, the next chaplain at Notre Dame, assumed responsibility of the Towson mission. In April, the Maryland Journal reported that the Most Reverend Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore and the Very Reverend Dwight Lyman had decided the Catholic chapel in Towson would henceforth be known as St. Cyprian’s Church. 14 “Two beautiful candlesticks and a number of fine vases to ornament the altar of the chapel” 15 were purchased in New York by Monsignor Lyman.

Rev. Dooper
Rev. Dooper

On November 28, 1885, the Reverend Hofschneider, the third priest to be assigned to Towson, was busily training the St. Cyprian’s Choir, whose members included Mrs. C. Bohn Slingluff, Mrs. N. Charles Burke, Misses Mollie Ady, Mollie Welby, Lulu Hartman, Nellie Burke, Florence Emory, Lizzle Murphy, and Messrs. George F. Wheeler, Jr., Frank Wheeler, and William L. Gailagher.16 The culmination of these efforts was a beautifully decorated and furnished church for the First Communion Mass and the Christmas services in 1885, attended by members of other religious denominations, who “enjoyed the excellent manner in which the choir rendered the musical part of the Mass.”

Rev. Mead

Early in 1886, Father Dooper, C.S.S.R, a professor from Mount St. Clements Redemptorist College at lichester, substituted for the recently transferred Father Hofschneider until Archbishop Gibbons appointed Towson’s first full-time pastor, the Reverend Theodore D. Mead, a nephew of Monsignor Lyman, who had served at both Govans and Williamsport, Washington County, before his appointment to Towson. He resided with his uncle until a new rectory at 110 Ware Avenue was completed in late 1886.

The new pastor filed papers of incorporation for St. Cyprian’s Church, Towsontown, at the courthouse on April 28, 1886.19 And, on May 23, Archbishop Gibbons officiated at the dedication, changing the name of the church to St. Francis Assisi. Monsignor Lyman was the celebrant, and the choir rendered Peter’s Mass, assisted by organist, Molly Ady. Following the Mass, the Archbishop received a throng of visitors in the sacristy. Among these were a great many Protestants. The Towson Bar was well represented,20 according to a report of the event in the Catholic Mirror.

Rev O'Keefe

Rev. O’Keefe

On the first Sunday of April, 1887, Father Mead introduced the congregation to his successor, the Reverend Matthew O’Keefe. Father Mead returned to Saint Augustine’s, Williamsport, and left the Towsonites in the care of a sixty-year-old native of Waterford, Ireland. Father O’Keefe, who had served the Richmond diocese for thirty-five years, personally nursing the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1855, was appointed chaplain to Mehone’s Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Following the war, he personally funded a seminary for priests that graduated a class of seven before the project proved too costly to continue. A second plague won him a commendation and a gold watch from the Emperor Napoleon III in 1869 when he spent more than a week with a quarantined French naval vessel, ministering to the stricken seamen.

Assigned as both Towson pastor and chaplain at Notre Dame, Father O’Keefe held both posts for four years, also serving as Catholic Schools Superintendent.

One of Father O’Keefe’s earliest goals for Towson was to start a school. Though initially the Sunday School room of St. Francis’s Church was used, by September of 1887, the school’s first fifteen pupils were moved to the church basement and by the end of the year, enrollment had reached forty-six. Two Notre Dame sisters were assigned as teachers and Father O’Keefe offered the rectory for their use, moving into a nearby boarding house.22 It would be four years before a second rectory, a brick house at 706 Washington Avenue, would be acquired.

In November of 1888, the Baltimore County Democrat reported that Father O’Keefe had purchased “Chew’s store property on the southeast corner and nine acres on the west side of York Road, northwest of Washington Avenue as a church site.”24 The new property was cleared of timber and sandstone deposits and designated the Mount Maria Cemetery .25 The first interment occurred on May 2, 1889, following the funeral of Mrs. Julia Foley of Loch Raven.

Despite the addition of a gallery that expanded the seating capacity to 500, it was apparent that the frame church could no longer adequately accommodate Towson’s Catholic population. Cardinal Gibbons agreed that a larger church was needed. Consequently, in 1894, with the aid of Mrs. Cecelia Whiteford and George W. Abell, son of the first publisher of the Baltimore Sun, who bore all the expenses, Father O’Keefe acquired the high ground west of the church on Sater’s Ridge (or Brittain Ridge, as the colonels had called it) and renamed the 501-foot plateau Monte Maria.27 The new church was to be named in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

By early 1894, foundation stones from the ruins of St. James College, Phoenix, had been transported by Northern Central Railroad to the site.28 Asking no support from the congregation, Father O’Keefe used his own salary to purchase two quarries; another was donated by Francis Hines, and by May, 1897, much of the building materials had been gathered on the Site.

Rev. O'Keefe's room
The dormer rooms in which
Rev. O’Keefe lived.

The new church was to be a duplicate of Saint Mary’s Church in Norfolk, Virginia, an elegant structure in the Gothic Revival style described as the most beautiful church south of Baltimore. However, the Towson structure included plans for a 200-foot bell tower at the northwest corner rather than the central entrance spire that is still to be seen in the Norfolk Church. Keely and Houghton, the Brooklyn, New York, architects who designed Saint Mary’s in Norfolk, drafted plans for the new Saint Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception to be 73 by 153 feet, with a floor plan based on fourteen phoenix columns, and to be lighted by electricity. Isaac Laren was the contractor under the personal direction of Father O’Keefe. 30

By the time the granite cornerstone of the church was laid on December 8, 1897, the Maryland Journal noted that the walls were partly up. Three years later, the marble work was practically completed and the walls were being topped off. Marble flooring from the recently demolished Merchants’ Exchange Building, a creation of the renowned architects, Benjamin Latrobe and Maximilian Godefroy, and marble railings from the earlier Baltimore City Courthouse, added beauty to the new church. Workmen could see the stacks of Sparrows Point and the sailing vessels cruising on Chesapeake Bay as they installed the slate roof. It was later said that Father O’Keefe, foreseeing regular airplane traffic, had the gigantic initials worked into the slates.32 The work was well advanced when Father O’Keefe celebrated his golden jubilee on January 3, 1902; by his seventy-fourth birthday in May of the same year, the exterior had been completed.

The congregation had their first view of the new church on February 5, 1903.34 When the 24-foot high marble main altar was installed in April, the church was substantially complete, with two side altars and two side chapels, donated by John B. Mullin of Paca Street.35 Interior walls and groining were lined with sheet-metal, embossed in a glided fleur de lis pattern, installed by the Penn Metal Ceiling and Roofing Company. The oak sedilia (priest’s chairs), carved by Jenkins and Sons, were donated by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Beacham. The pews, doors, and gallery front were made by Heise and Burns Mill and Lumber Company of Caroline Street. The stained glass windows were executed by the Baumstark Art Glass Works on Belair Road, whose owner, Mr. Gustave Baumstark donated one of the series depicting the stations of the cross, the fourteenth station, the burial of Christ.

On May 10, 1903, the first Mass was said in the new church.37 The first marriage, that of Lillie Agnes Roach and Joseph W. W. Billingslea, was celebrated on October 7, but lack of heating system forced the congregation to return, temporarily, to Saint Francis of Assisi Church, at the end of the month.

More than 1,500 persons were present when Cardinal Gibbons officiated at the dedication ceremonies on September 8, 1904. Deacons of honor were the Reverend J. Doherty, pastor of Saint Mary’s, Norfolk, and the Reverend George W. Devine, of Saint John’s Church, Eager Street, Baltimore. Music was selected from Haydn’s Second Mass. The Reverend D. J. Stafford, rector of Saint Patrick’s Church, Broadway, preached the sermon. Cardinal Gibbons praised the late George W. Abell who made the Church of the Immaculate Conception a reality and stated the church was the best in the diocese, “excepting my own dear Cathedral.” He expressed the wish that Father O’Keefe would live to see the grounds beautified “and a tower lifting its head above the roof” and credited Father O’Keefe with accomplishing “little short of a miracle in erecting this edifice upon the summit of this commanding hill.”

Father O’Keefe, who had lived in the dormer rooms of the sacristy until his death on January 28, 1906, was buried in the Lady Chapel of his beautiful new church.40 41 He bequeathed to the parish the proceeds from the sale of real estate he owned in Towson and Richmond to erect “a first class school house capable of accommodating not less than a thousand children … proportionately conformable to the style and beauty of the Church” and one lot west of the cemetery. Father O’Keefe expected that Bosley Avenue would be extended through this area in 1903 (a project that was actually completed in 1954). He also left “A lot of five acres on the York Road (north) opposite the cemetery purchased by me for the purpose of growing feed for my horses (3) and the sisters’ cow and which will sell for $2,000, as so as I have no further use for draft horses.”

The official church-school of 1884, no longer need, was demolished, and the lot sold to Charles F. and Emma B. Mays in April of 1925. Mr. Mays had the former E. Tyson Ware dwelling moved off the convent lot to the former church property at 108 Ware Avenue. In 1969, Mays sold the house to David Lee Brooks, the Buick dealer. Almost one hundred years later, the old site serves the area as a parking lot, while the new church rises majestically nearby, continuing an unbroken tradition of ministry to the parish.

Rev. Sheridan
Rev. Sheridan


The reverend Philip Sheridan, a seminary professor and Assistant at Saint Paul’s Church, Caroline and Oliver Streets, Baltimore, succeeded Father O’Keefe as pastor on February 11, 1906. The parish now numbered 800 parishioners and its 146 school pupils. The church had cost $200,000, of which $30,000 remained to be paid. The residual debt and future school expediters were to burden future pastors for the next five decades.


Chapter Two

A rectory was completed in 1908 at a cost of $32,500. Father Sheridan’s plans for a masonry elementary school and a high school were delayed due to finances until after World War I. Nevertheless, prior to and during the war years, the parish established a Sodality (1911), the Parish Debt Society (1916) and the Holy Name Society (1917). In 1916, the parish welcomed a new assistant, the Reverend James G. O’Neill, a native of Pikesville.

A tract on Ware Avenue with a gable-peaked house was purchased in 1921, but the house was soon moved to make way for the brick convent to house fifteen Sisters, completed in 1924. 2 School construction had also commenced in 1921, and by the date of Father Sheridan’s Silver Jubilee, November 5, 1922, the school was ready for dedication by the newly appointed Archbishop Michael J. Curley.

Finally opened on September 11 and solemnly dedicated on November 23, 1923, the three-story building of ornamental white hydraulic brick trimmed with Green River limestone was indeed a fine building, “in conformity to the beauty of the church.” Internally supported by a steel frame, the school had firewalls separating the main stairway from the body of the building and housed eleven classrooms, science laboratories, rooms for domestic science, music and typing, a library and 700-seat auditorium that doubled as a gymnasium. 4 The school was so large, in fact, that the Sisters of Notre Dame could not supply enough teachers, and on August 18, 1926, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, assumed management and were still serving the school in 1983.

School dedication
Solemn dedication of the School of the Immaculate Conception, November 23, 1923

Father Sheridan intended to offer a fully accredited high school program to serve the entire upper county. Originally housed on the third floor of the elementary school, the high school’s first student body numbered thirty-eight. As a result, grade school pupils, with typical literal-mindedness, insisted that the high school was so called because of its location on the school’s highest floor! Students at Catholic Central High School, the name chosen by the Archbishop for the new high school, could elect a four-year academic courses program or a curriculum that combined two years of academic course work with two years of commercial studies. State certification was secured on December 6, 1926, and a Group One Rating was awarded in 1927 following an inspection by the state superintendent of education. The combined elementary-high school complex accommodated larger and larger classes until overcrowding resulted, in 1928, in the construction of a three-story addition, finished in 1929, increasing the parish debt to $155,500.

The boom of the 20’s was reflected in Towson itself with an increasing number of new homes, and the growing parish soon required additional Sunday Masses to accommodate the congregation. By 1933, Father Sheridan’s health had been seriously undermined and he requested sick leave. Subsequently, he was assigned to Saint Mark’s Church, Catonsville, serving until his death on January 13, 1948.6And so, at the age of forty-five, Father James O’Neill, who had served as assistant at Immaculate Conception Church since his ordination in 1916, became administrator of the parish, and on June 9, 1936, was appointed pastor.

View of the early school
View of the early school

The new pastor never mentioned money to his parishioners. As he wrote in a pastoral letter, his parishioners knew they “could attend Mass and say your prayers without undue annoyance.” Yet church members and even the school children “chipped away” at the debt all through the depression years of the 30’s, employing as “money makers” such events as card parties, weekly bingo games (with bus service provided!), the Dollar-A-Month Club, and most effective of all, the operetta. The high school had presented Peg o’ My Heart in 1932, but the first of an unbroken series of annual operettas was H.M.S. Pinafore in April, 1937. Father O’Neill, who had studied theatrical production and was also a talented carpenter, even painted scenery for the musical extravaganzas. The painted thermometer of debt in the church vestibule showed the total sinking dramatically, until in November, 1946, the parish was debt-free Each year Archbishop Curley congratulated Father O’Neill on the progress made in reducing the debt, noting in 1943 … “Your people are really generous. Your income was magnificent compared to what we get in the city from the same number of people.”

The school continued to grow during the 30’s and Sister Zachariah assumed responsibility as principal upon the death of Sister Corintha in 1933. At first, the parish operated a horse-drawn omnibus and later a fleet of squarish, first-generation motor busses to transport pupils to school, but Father O’Neill helped inspire legislation allowing students living at a considerable distance from the school to ride the public school busses. By the early 1940’s, a full-time coach was hired and an athletic field developed next to the cemetery. While constructing the field, Father O’Neill enlarged the parking area north of the church to four lanes by dumping seemingly endless truckloads of earth over the original precipice.

The new rectory
The new rectory

World War II produced jobs and high salaries on the home front, and the parishioners shared their prosperity with the church. Support of the war effort was evident in the conspicuously displayed American flag and a service flag in the sanctuary which showed 203 parishioners serving in the military.

Following the war, Towson continued to grow, and Father O’Neill required the aid of two assistants and several visiting priests to accommodate the congregation on Sundays. Overcrowding in the high school became so acute that in October, 1946, a Father O’Neill Testimonial Fund was organized under the presidency of W. W. Lannahan to raise $100,000 to build a free-standing high school. Father O’Neill was not well at this time and noted in the Campaign-o-Graph, the fund bulletin, “During the past year I have been of little use to the parish, but I do not consider myself entirely defeated. I still have visions.” 11 He died on October 14, 1947, following a heart attack. The completion of the new school fell to Fr. O’Neill’s successor, the Right Reverend Joseph M. Nelligan. In 1952, the keynote address delivered when the cornerstone was laid was given by a son of the parish, the Reverend John U. Lyness, who had been ordained only four years before. The school opened in 1953 and boasted an auditorium and a separate gymnasium with a floor free of the steel supporting posts that had obstructed the old gym of 1922. Monsignor Nelligan declared at the opening ceremonies that the parish debt was the largest in North America, but he wasn’t going to worry about it and neither should the parishioners. Within eight years the $1.25 million debt had been liquidated. By 1965, the high school attained a Superior Rating from the Middle States Association, an accrediting agency.

The grammar school was not able to expand into the top story of the 1921 building. In 1960, a three-story addition in a modern architectural style was added.

At Towson Catholic High School’s 50th Anniversary Mass on March 27, 1977, the Reverend Edward J. Lynch, a alumnus, praised the women who had contributed so much to the school:

… We mentioned the first principal, Sister Ceciliana; she was succeeded by Sister Corintha in 1932. Just seven months later … Sister Corintha died and was succeeded by Sister Zacharia. It seemed that the faculty of Towson Catholic in those years seldom changed. Sister Leonita was at the school for 17 years, Sister Julius for 27 years, and Sister Josefita’s first hitch was for 33 years, and 4 years later, she came back for about 6 more … Sister Julius became principal in 1947 and was principal during that period of growth from the third floor to the new high school. Sister Camillia, Sister Donald Ignatius, and Sister Rita Gertrude rounded out the 50’s and brought T.C. into the age of Vatican II. Then in 1967, Sister Lucetta bounced into the picture until 1972 when Sister Helen St. Paul became principal.

A dramatic change took place in 1974. Men’s liberation. The first male principal of Towson Catholic was Father Timothy Joyce … His successor was Father Paul Lauzon who came in August, 1976, and is the current principal. In August, 1982, a new principal of the high school and with Sister Mary Teresiana, who had been principal of the elementary school since 1981, continue the tradition of providing a superior Catholic education for all their pupils.

Prior to assuming responsibility as pastor of Immaculate Conception parish, the Right Reverend Joseph M. Nelligan, a native of Towson ordained in 1926, served at Saint Gabriel’s Church, Washington; in 1936 was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Washington, and, as rector of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, supervised the renovation there from 1943 – 1947. 

Chapter Three

 Despite the costs of building a new high school, expanding the convent, and completing the necessary church repairs, money was rarely mentioned from the pulpit by the new pastor. Monsignor Nelligan was usually able to report a surplus, a savings fund for the future, or some “coup” of borrowing money for less cost than the old money was earning at interest. The parish numbered 4,000 when the Nelligan years began and reached 9,000 at one point.1The prosperity of the 1950’s and the generosity of the parishioners enabled the pastor to make the necessary physical repairs, as well as installing air-conditioning in the church.

Towson Catholic


In 1959, when Pope John XXIII convened a church council, few could envision the effects on Catholics throughout the world. The first change was the substitution of English for Latin in the Mass, and the priest facing the congregation throughout the service. The new method of celebrating Mass encouraged increased parishioner involvement, and through the permanent deaconates and participation by lay lectors and cantors, more parishioners actively assisted in the liturgy. Monsignor Nelligan, who had been appointed to the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism in 1962, was bringing the joyous message of Vatican II to Immaculate Conception parish.

By 1962, architects were busily drawing plans for an extensive reconstruction of the church to meet the requirements of the new liturgy. By this time, repair work to the roof was needed, the tile floors were worn, and Gustave Baumstark’s stained glass windows were in decay, many of their figures faded and faceless. In June, 1964, Monsignor Nelligan announced a bold program of renovation. The church would be closed all summer while the firm of Gaudreau-Architects managed a unified program of maintenance, change, and artistic innovation. 3 The architect’s control was total, and the results were breathtaking when the church was reopened on September 19, 1964.

Apse windows

The new stained glass placed in the church during the renovation of the Annunciation

The apse windows, which had contained the four evangelists, had been filled in with masonry, thus focusing attention to the simplicity of the plain marble altar in the sanctuary, sheltered by a bronze baldachin or canopy. The new tabernacle was at the far rear, outlined by an oak frame and rich velvet hangings. The new windows, rendered by the Rambusch Studio of New York, in brilliant blues and reds, illustrated scenes from the life of Our Lady. The statues at the side altars, combining medieval and modern sculpture, were mounted flat upon the walls under pointed arches. The old embossed metal ceilings and infill, which in a 13th Century cathedral would have been stone groining, were retained but were sprayed in two tones of gray. The chairs and pulpit were flat and spare in the Bauhaus manner, and the altar railing so slender it hardly seemed to separate the priest from the congregation. The pews, though plain, were elegant examples of the woodworker’s art. Two chapels no longer opened off the side aisles; instead, four confessionals built from these stones lined the aisle ways. The baptistery was located at the end of the main aisle, and a glass partition between the vestibule, or narthex, and the nave provided a striking view leading from the baptismal font to the altar and the crucifix hanging by almost invisible wires, all the symbols of Christianity aligned in a single vista.

The jagged stones at the northwest corner that had waited for a bell tower since 1904 were now gone. In the spring of 1965, a copper, lead-coated Gothic spire or fleche was added to the ridge line of the roof. The spire, prefabricated at Greensburg, Pennsylvania, included eight gargoyles and terminated in a “rayed cross,” the design of the Gaudreau firm.

Another splendid improvement was the installation of a Moller organ, made in Hagerstown and donated by John T. Waldhauser, Jr., and Mrs. Edward H. (Bessie) Burke, dedicated on June 13, 1971, in a service that combined the choirs of Immaculate Conception Church with that of Towson United Methodist Church.

In the spirit of Vatican II, parishioners from Immaculate Conception parish formed cordial links with members of neighboring churches. In Towson Under God, published in 1976, our Nation’s Bicentennial Year, the Reverend Kingsley Smith, Rector of Trinity Church, exhorted the Catholics in these words:

Still, Catholics in Towson must face the challenges of the 1970’s which have brought into question many of the old certainties. There are traditionalists who grieve at the loss of familiar customs and styles of worship … There are charismatics who yearn for strong emotional experience; … There are modernists who are looking for a substantial intellectual basis for faith through enrollment at the Towson School of Theology which met … under the aegis of five Towson churches, or in courses at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary, at the classes of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or in local colleges. There are social activists who are bringing a Catholic witness to movements for peace, racial justice, political reform and the rights of women. Finally, there are those who, through intermarriage or other involvement in the wider community, look for ways to express their Catholicism ecumenically by cooperating with their fellow Christians without compromising their convictions.

In short, the Roman Catholic Church is, like every other religious organization, heavily influenced by the society in which it exists. It must find new ways in which it can be in the world but not of it. It needs to use its teaching authority to proclaim the Gospel, to provide shelter and hope without being merely a retreat from life. The long pilgrimage of the church in America, especially in Maryland, has been an interplay between authority and toleration. This should be a firm foundation for dealing creatively with the challenges of the future.

Church steeple

By 1974, a Parish Council had been established providing additional opportunities for involvement by the laity in parish activities. On January 16, 1974, Monsignor Nelligan resigned as pastor and resided at Stella Maris until his death on May 12, 1978, at age 78.
In a letter to the parish, he introduced his successor in these words:

“My expectations in this regard are confirmed by the choice the Cardinal has made in appointing Monsignor John U. Lyness to succeed me here at Immaculate. Monsignor Lyness is one of our finest priests. Since his ordination in 1948, he has been stationed at Saint Patrick’s Church in Cumberland and was named Pastor there in 1968. Aside from his parochial accomplishments, which are outstanding, he has been a tremendous asset to the Archdiocese in the leadership and the inspiration he has given to the church in Western Maryland.”

The new alter

At the same time, Monsignor Lyness has very close ties to our parish here in Towson. He was born in Baltimore, lived here as a child, made his first communion and was confirmed in this church. He attended Immaculate Conception School and offered his first Mass here after being raised to the holy priesthood. His family resided in the area for many years and his good father still lives in the neighborhood. The Monsignor, consequently, has very special attachment to the Immaculate and returns to you with great interest in furthering the work of our Blessed Lord among you all.

Under the direction of Monsignor Lyness, the parish ventured into a number of new programs of spiritual growth and renewal. The variety of new ministries, the expansion of established ones, facilitated and inspired by the collaborative efforts of Monsignor Lyness and our associate pastors, reflect the dynamic spirit of the parish in 1983. Immaculate Conception’s first century was characterized by “A Century of Service, a Legacy of Love.” This brief history and a free-standing bell tower will remain as tangible reminders that Towson’s Catholics recall with pride and the beginnings of our parish, when the first Mass was said over a grocery store in 1883, and the weapons of the Towsontown Guards were briefly whisked out of sight to make room for a temporary altar.

Monsignor Edward Lynch, also a member of the parish and an alumnus of Immaculate Conception School and Towson Catholic High School, served here as an associate pastor from June 1969 to March 1974. He left Immaculate Conception Parish to found Our Lady of Grace Parish in Parkton. Then in September 1983 he returned to become the seventh pastor of Immaculate Conception Church. On December 8, 1983, he was officially installed by Archbishop William Borders. The parish welcomed Father Lynch on his return as our shepherd.

As we face our second century, we gratefully acknowledge the efforts and achievements of those who established our parish and provided this rich legacy of faith; and we renew our dedication, with God’s help, to continue and strengthen our spiritual heritage.

Chapter Four 

 The year 1983 marked the centennial of the parish with a solemn anniversary mass celebrated by Archbishop Borders.  The Rev. John U. Lyness, the pastor, presided, and the guest homilist was the Rev. Edward J. Lynch, pastor of Our Lady of Grace at Parkton.  The month after the service, on June 13, Monsignor Lyness died, and he was succeeded that same year by Monsignor Lynch.  Both priests were sons of the parish.  Monsignor Lyness had lived on Highland Avenue as a boy, about three blocks from the church. Monsignor Lynch grew up on Banbury Road in Idlewylde and was baptized, and confirmed at the Immaculate and received his First Communion there; in addition, he had attended both the Immaculate Conception elementary school and the Towson Catholic High School; he was also a graduate of Loyola College, class of 1949.  The parish had an enormous float in the Towson July 4 parade marking the centennial.  The truck was supplied by the Bozel company, and bore a banner, “A Century of Service, a Legacy of Love.”   The parish history and a presentation of the current works of the church were presented in a hard-cover book issued in 1983. 

One Centennial project was the construction of a free-standing bell tower.  A bell tower had been part of the original plan for the 1897 marble church but it was never constructed.  For decades, there were jagged stones at the northwest corner of the exterior where a Gothic tower was to be tacked on to the nave, but it was smoothed out in the 1965 alterations.  The new tower stood on the high ground southwest of the church and was composed of pre-cast concrete sections. The architects were Ayres/Saint, Inc., of Baltimore, a firm headed by Richard W. Ayres, FAIA.  Lawrence Construction Company under Garland (Skip) Young, general manager, and John Maykrantz, superintendent, performed the installation. The bells were cast by the Van Bergen Bell Foundries, Inc., of France. The tower was dedicated on March 25, 1984, the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Calvert colonists in St. Mary’s County in 1634, a day also marked as the Feast of the Annunciation. The tower had been a project of Monsignor Lyness, thought of in 1981.  Groundbreaking had been May 22, 1983, the event presided over by the Monsignor and Bishop Francis Murphy on the 35th anniversary of the Monsignor’s ordination. A spring rain storm struck at the moment of dedication but did not scatter the on-lookers.  The tower was debt-free at its completion. An electronic system causes the bells to ring.

The year 1989 was the Bicentennial of the election and installation of Bishop John Carroll as the first bishop of Baltimore.  A slide show of the history of the parish was presented on October 15 that year.  At the regular Mass on November 6,  students from the school dressed as Mother Seton, Bishop John Carroll, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, and other figures of the early Maryland church. 

Towson Catholic High School acquired its own chapel in 1990. It was a small space adapted from the end of a corridor by architect Frank Gant. Seating is for just ten students who have three pews rescued from the old chapel of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.  Simple windows were developed in stained glass by Ed Ramsey. Loni Ingraham of the Towson Times reported that the small room was as “Flooded with the afternoon sun one day last week, blue light streaked across one wall. On the other, a triplet red and gold pattern danced.”  Dedication took the form of a Mass on December 13, 1990.

In 1994, Archbishop William Keeler, successor of Archbishop Borders, was elevated to Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.  The following year, the Pope visited Baltimore, and celebrated mass at Oriole Park, October  8, 1995. On his visit to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the Pope approached the boundaries of our parish.  Many parishioners were present at the Mass. There was also a Papal visit to the  Catholic Charities lunch room on Cathedral Street and a visit to Bishop John Carroll’s Basilica. 

On November 5, 1995, Cardinal Keeler came to the Immaculate to dedicate the five stained glass windows in the apse (rear wall) of the church.  There had been windows with the four evangelists in the original configuration of the 1897 church, but the 1965 alterations had plugged up the window spaces.  Monsignor Lynch wanted to return to the original plan.  The windows were designed by Gibbons of Baltimore, Church Interiors, and installed by Lynchburg Stained Glass Company of Lynchburg, Virginia. The “St. Matthew” window was donated by the pastor. The others were donated by local families and the “Immaculate Conception Window”, the one in the very center, was in memory of Father James G. O’Neill and Monsignors Joseph M. Nelligan and John U. Lyness. 

The parish celebrated the 40th anniversary of Monsignor Lynch’s ordination on May 26, 1997. Later that year, on December 8, the parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of laying the cornerstone for the Immaculate Conception Church or the Church of the Immaculate as Father O’Keefe had called it, the replacement of the very modest wooden St. Francis of Assisi Church on Ware Avenue. Needless to say, the ancient pastor had waited for the Holy Day to set the stone.  The author of the centennial history went to the Maryland Historical Society with the confident expectation that an architect’s rendering of the 1897 church could be found in the richly illustrated Baltimore American, and sure enough, it turned up in a matter of minutes and was used for the cover of the ceremonial booklet of 1997.

In 1998, the Archdiocese launched a massive fund raising effort called the Heritage of Hope Campaign to fund improvements all over the State.  The funds were to be shared with the parishes, with substantial sums accruing for much needed repairs and improvements.  Monsignor Lynch wryly commented that the knocking sounds from the heating system portended one of the future projects. Some of the early donors contributed a very large percentage of the hoped for goal. The target was hit fairly rapidly before some would be donors were ever reached by the volunteers. About $3 million was collected.

One of the first projects was the formation of a Perpetual Adoration Chapel in the sacristy wing at the rear of the church.  Cardinal Keeler dedicated the completed chapel on November 28, 1998.  Teams of parishioners have kept the chapel manned ever since its opening, day and night at times, to follow the instruction, “Pray Always.”

One of Monsignor Lynch’s bold moves was adding parking spaces where there had been an unbroken sweep of lawn from Joppa Road toward the south side of the church. The new spaces were shored up by a well crafted stone retaining wall. Some people had been very fond of all that grass.

Late in 1998, Monsignor Lynch retired. He seemed to know everybody and have a well crafted story, often humorous, about each of them.  He was a great raconteur and an avid golfer.  For some months the parish was administered by Monsignor Mitchell Rosanski. Then in 1999, Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder, another son of the parish, the fifth locally raised pastor in a row, was appointed permanent pastor, effective July 1, 2000.  In his boyhood, Monsignor Tinder had lived at Donnybrook and later in Towson Park on Skidmore Court.

In 2001, as part of its anticipated improvements, the parish bought the bed of part  Ware Avenue  and a half block of Baltimore Avenue from Baltimore County to make the whole area into an unbroken campus.  The parish and archdiocese were obliged to build a short stretch of 40-foot roadway from Joppa Road to the public parking garage, because the public had been accustomed to approaching the garage via the north end of Baltimore Avenue.  In 2001, Monsignor Tinder issued an annual report announcing the forthcoming parish center which had long been in planning.

Ground breaking for the meeting space and additional school space took place on May 1, 2002. The large meeting room and school spaces were formally dedicated on March 24, 2004 by Cardinal Keeler.

The next phase of the all round improvements was to be the church. The walls were the same gray color, which some described as “battleship gray”, sprayed on during the 1965 improvements and had become somewhat dull.  The wall areas between the Gothic ribs were made of embossed tin with a pattern of vines and fleur de lis’s, all of which had disappeared.  There was much more to do, for example changing the altar and enlarging the vestibule, which was very shallow.  The church was closed all summer and mass was celebrated in the high school auditorium, until its air conditioning failed, then in the new meeting room, which some how accommodated all the members.



The improvements cost $1.75 million, and were worth the wait.  The very tall 1965 baldachino or canopy over the altar was removed, not replaced. Inside the church was a glowing color of gold yellow, the groining in the Gothic ribs overhead painted in contrasting shades of deep blue.  Behind the altar was a polished wooden Gothic reredos (or screen) at the very rear of the apse, carved with various pinnacles and decorated with carved wooden crockets.  The reredos also contained  the tabernacle.   The vestibule, now a narthex, was spacious enough for some mingling of attendees at Mass or services, and glass walls in that area gave a full view of the interior of the nave.  The heating and cooling system was updated, the acoustics improved, and lighting vastly improved.

Architects were Murphy & Dittenhoffer, and the J. Vincent Schafer & Sons Company of Harford County served as the contractors, under the direction of site superintendent Ken McDearmon. Half way through the project the Jeffersonian quoted the pastor, who said, “I think it’s going to be spectacular,” and Bill Barrett, who said, “It’s a beautiful, magnificent church, an architectural masterpiece.” Speaking of the gray coating, Monsignor Tinder was quoted, “Not every church was renovated like this. We lost some of the warmth of the traditional Catholic church.”  Lauren Taylor of the Towson Times noted, “As the work proceeds, details in the walls, on columns and in the ceiling will be highlighted in vibrant gold and green.”  She quoted superintendent McDearmon saying, “We’re taking the church back to what it was.”  Mary Mansperger, a 91-year-old parishioner said of the canopy, “When that’s up there, you can’t see the beautiful windows.”

Later in the summer, the Catholic Review reported on the progress, and by then Monsignor Tinder was able to point to the intricate patters of vines and berries now highlighted in color, “You didn’t know any of it was here because it was all gray.”  Explaining the thinking of 1965, the pastor noted, “After the council [Vatican II], the attempt was made to diminish all the elements we would typically think of in a church.  Everything was painted gray and the ceiling was dark so your eyes wouldn’t roam around the church, and the only element that was focused on was the altar.”.



The project took only three months, and there was a formal rededication Mass celebrated by Cardinal Keeler on December 8, 2005, followed by a reception

In the autumn of 2007, The Rt. Rev. Edwin F. O’Brien was installed as Archbishop of Baltimore, to succeed Cardinal Keeler who had submitted his resignation upon reaching the mandatory age for retirement. The appointment was made by Pope Benedict XVI, who had been elected in 2005.

Early in 2008, the Archdiocese  celebrated its Bicentennial as an archdiocese—there having been no other bishops grouped under John Carroll when he was appointed to the See of Baltimore in 1789. Starting in 1808, Baltimore’s vast and impossible territory started to shrink to a more manageable area.

On December 8, 2008, the celebration of the patronal feast of the parish, the Most Rev. Archbishop Edwin F.  O’Brien celebrated the evening mass.  Both the Archbishop and the Rev. Michael Foppianno noted that the parish was one year short of celebrating the 125th anniversary of its formation and the 100th anniversary of dedicating the marble church on the ridge.

In the last quarter century, the parish has seen the formation of many groups and committees staffed by laymen. The formation of parish councils has not led to the disputes and squabbles that “trusteeism” produced in the early 19th century. Volunteers staff the Adoration Chapel, individuals members take Holy Communion to sick persons, a committee plans liturgies for significant feasts, and countless persons cook casseroles to feed indigent persons, while others collect and drop off canned goods and staples to a food bank for families in need. In these times, affluent parishes team with a poor parish and share revenue, and the Immaculate has Saint Thomas Aquinas Church of Hampden-Woodberry as its sister parish. The parish also has a sister diocese to help, a struggling district at Gonaive in Haiti. A number of programs have been instituted wherein members meet in homes for prayer and reflection.  One early program was called Renew, and some of its members continued to meet together for years after the multi-week formal program ended.  The home meetings often ended with refreshments or a buffet provided by the house  owner. In the 125th year, a series of such meetings entitled “Why Catholic” was in progress. The many committees and groups are scarcely aware of each others’ activity.  There are also persons who greet parishioners arriving in the narthex before Mass.  Other persons are active in gathering supplies for expectant mothers at a  pregnancy center supported by several parishes.