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Baltimore City

New leaf for a Canton Sunday school

The last straw for a Southeast Baltimore’s Sunday school was its troublesome boiler. When it finally ceased functioning, the United Church of Christ congregation made a difficult decision.

It was time to sell the solidly constructed United Evangelical Church’s school. Constructed in 1936, its four floors held rooms and desks for young members learning the Bible or getting ready for confirmation.

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“It was once this large,” said the Rev. Catherine J. Oatman, the pastor of the still active congregation as she showed a panoramic photo taken in the middle 1930s. The image made it seem as if every person in Canton was spilling around the corner of S. East Avenue and Dillon Street.

The photo showed perhaps hundreds of young Sunday schoolers dressed in immaculate Sabbath outfits.

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This summer, the former Sunday school building is becoming something else. Carpenters and plumbers are turning it into a 15-unit apartment house to serve the Canton neighborhood. When completed, it becomes The School Haus co-owned by Daniel, Jonathan and Greg Kamenetz.

“The structure and bones of the building lend themselves well to an apartment conversion. The exposed concrete and beams create a modern industrial feel,” said Jake Wittenberg, the building’s general contractor and co-owner with the Kamenetz family.

He said architect Jim Shetler brought out all the possibilities in the four-story building whose upper floor windows overlook Fort McHenry across the harbor and two Brewer’s Hill institutions, the National and Gunther brewhouses.

Wittenberg, in a separate project that speaks to changes in the neighborhood, is building nine townhouses at the former St. Brigid’s Catholic Church site at Elwood and Hudson.

The United Evangelical Sunday school building was constructed separately from the church and its parsonage. The congregation continues to worship where it has since 1873.

It’s hard to consider that S. East Avenue, where the school fronts, was once the eastern boundary of Baltimore City. Or that the church, its hall and parsonage once sat in open countryside.

“The Canton Company, that owned all the land here, gave us our site,” Oatman said.

He said the church school had a double function — its teachers taught the German-speaking children English as well as religious doctrine.

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“In this neighborhood you were either Protestant or Catholic,” she said. “And so many of the people worked on the coal piers on the waterfront or at Western Electric.”

The corner of S. East Avenue and Dillon Street is built up today, in a pleasant way, into a dense neighborhood of streets of well-tended rowhouses and the occasional corner store or tavern.

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By established Baltimore tradition, the church had another name. It was Batz’s Church, after its long-time pastor, the Rev. William P. Batz, who served the congregation from 1896 to 1926.

“Batz walked all over the neighborhood and collected a dollar from people to get them to support the church, even if they didn’t attend,” she said. “And he would stop in the lunchrooms where the working people might go. I am told he liked a drink.”

The church was renowned for another tradition that spoke to its German roots, the annual sour beef and dumpling dinner. In the autumn, the congregation’s fellowship committee staged its meal that brought visitors far and wide.

“I’m very proud of our gravy. It’s smooth as velvet,” said Grace E. Fader, who ran the dinners, in a 1993 Baltimore Sun story.

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Her take on beef and dumplings included a still memorable blend of vinegar and spices.

On an October evening, 1,400 diners gathered in a hall below the main church for the meal, which also included lima beans in a thick tomato sauce and a vinegar-redolent cold slaw. The recipes dated from the Rev. Batz era.

“Anybody can look up a sour beef recipe in a cookbook. But learning how to make it right is different,” Fader told the Sun. “It all has to be understood.”


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