BALTIMORE – On Druid Hill Avenue, where Immaculate Conception Parish sits, Father Sylvester Peterka noticed about six years ago that drug dealers were often selling their wares shamelessly on the church steps.
Some would have called the police, or shooed the dealers off the steps whenever possible. But Peterka approached the issue with prayer, periodically holding vigils on the church steps with members of his congregation.
While this did not eliminate drug sales on Druid Hill Avenue, Peterka said that he stopped seeing them on the church steps. The prayer vigils turned the steps into a “sacred space,” he said, and even the drug dealers noticed.
But after 22 years in Baltimore, Peterka returns to Philadelphia this summer, where his priesthood began, leaving behind a legacy in the form of individuals he influenced who will continue the work he started. He was able to connect with two congregations in need, transcending racial boundaries and differences in background.
As a child, the second oldest of nine, Peterka would help his dad on the family farm after school. He figured he would be a farmer, but as he got older, his aspirations changed.
His “idols,” as he calls them, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, inspired him to help others. He read anything he could find by King, and considered a variety of professions that would allow him to seek justice for others.
He eventually decided to be a priest, he said, because “there was just something about God … that was special.”
After being ordained in 1976, Peterka’s vocation (occupation as a priest) took him to a high school in Philadelphia, where he taught several years. He then worked as a vocations director for two years, until he moved to Auburn University as the Catholic campus minister and an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team.
He touched the community indirectly by helping young people, but he realized something was “calling me to work with the needy” directly.
Around this time a close friend, Brother William Stover, asked him to preach a service in Baltimore. This one service led to an invitation to lead a parish in Baltimore, now 22 years ago.
Once in Baltimore, Peterka had endless opportunities to work with the needy. He was placed at Immaculate Conception Parish, the poorest Catholic church in the city. Despite its small size and modest appearance, Peterka calls it “in many ways the richest parish … when it comes to faith.”
Six years later he added the role of pastor at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, while remaining pastor at Immaculate Conception.
At both churches, the congregations are mostly African American and struggle with the problems that come with an inner-city setting. Instead of seeing this difference as an obstacle, Peterka took it as an opportunity to find unique ways to connect with his parishioners.
Only 2 percent of American Catholics are black, according to a 2008 Pew report, so this demographic has the potential to be overlooked. However, Peterka made a point of addressing the cultural needs of his churches.
“He draws people in from the African American community,” said Frances Davis, a parishioner who volunteers to help with church finances. “He includes rituals from the African heritage.”
This cultural recognition is noticeable even on the doors of St. Cecilia Catholic Church. Soon after his arrival at the parish, Peterka had the doors painted with images of African angels and an African crucifixion scene.
Davis attributed Peterka’s knowledge and recognition of African culture to the time he spent in Ethiopia and 10 other African countries as a church adviser.
Beyond Parish Walls
Just as he looks to serve the cultural needs of his congregations, Peterka strives to provide them with practical needs, as many members face financial and personal challenges that accompany life in inner-city Baltimore.
In addition to church activities for the community, such as praying on the church steps, serving the needy in their soup kitchen and taking prayer walks through the neighborhood to commemorate victims of violent crime, Peterka has led groups outside of the church.
The pastor founded F.A.C.E., Freedom Advocates Celebrating Ex-offenders, in 2002, along with the organization’s current director, Marlo Hargrove, an ex-offender who once struggled with addiction and crime.
The organization was originally intended as a support group for ex-convicts. Although F.A.C.E. continues to do this, it has expanded to include family members and others who want to show support.
While he has taken a step back from F.A.C.E., which is now mostly lay-led, Peterka has also been an integral part of the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) Fellowship, a recovery program he led with Brother Stover to provide transitional housing and guidance to addicts and ex-convicts.
Peterka and Stover have also created an opportunity for past addicts to gain additional support from the community in their “DePaul house.”
When Immaculate Conception and St. Cecilia merged offices, there was no need for a second rectory house. But instead of simply closing the Immaculate Conception office, the priests proposed turning it into a recovery house for addicts looking to turn their lives around.
The congregations were resistant at first, but “now if I were to propose closing the house, I would get run out of town on a rail,” Peterka said.
“I have seen miracles.”
In his 22 years in Baltimore, Peterka has not seen a complete change in the city or his neighborhoods, but in individuals, he said, “I have seen miracles.”
What strikes him most, he said, is “to see the transformation of men when they give their hearts to the Lord” and “to see people who have so little give so much.”
Despite the poverty of his congregations, they continue to serve those less fortunate by collecting and serving food at their soup kitchen.
Support is also found within the church. Keith Hill, 33, a member of the St. Cecilia Church and a former DePaul house resident, said the congregation welcomed him, despite his rocky past.
“The people – they’re caring, respectful,” he said. “They take you in like they’re your family.”
Hill went straight from prison to the DePaul house, where he worked to overcome an addiction to drugs. He has now been clean for almost four years, and was able to get a job with the church, find a home of his own and regain contact with his children, much of which he credits to Peterka.
“He gave me a chance with this job, with housing … he definitely gave me a big chance,” Hill said.
The pastor recalled multiple other transformations. One man came to him nine years ago, having spent no more than a year out of jail since age 11, and now works for the church. Another was Marlo Hargrove, the current director of F.A.C.E., who went from addict and dealer to mentor and family man.
Peterka said that while many who recover with BUILD Fellowship or F.A.C.E. end up staying with St. Cecilia or Immaculate Conception, the programs are happy to help non-Catholics and even non-Christians. Peterka said that a number of Muslim men have come to the recovery houses.
For Peterka, bettering lives in Baltimore has defined much of his 36-year career as a priest, whether he was working within the church or in the larger community.
Starting June 30, in Philadelphia, he will use many of the same skills to unite three congregations into one at St. Vincent de Paul Church. The three churches all have diverse, inner-city populations, which will require Peterka once again to break down social and cultural barriers.
Much of his impact in Baltimore, he said, came from the generosity of the congregations.
“Both churches do so much good,” he said, “there’s a great sense of ‘what can we do?'”
Those who he has helped will mark his prolonged presence in Baltimore even after he leaves in June, as F.A.C.E. and BUILD Fellowship continue to grow.
“To me, he reminds me of a shepherd,” said Janice Blackwell, a church volunteer. “He looks over his flock and loves his people.”