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Benedictine blends business, faith to rescue parish

BALTIMORE, Md. (The Catholic Review) – Benedictine Father Paschal A. Morlino, 68, could have operated a small business in the Tidewater area of Virginia like his father and grandfather before him. Instead, in 1959, he signed on to become a Benedictine monk, putting his energy and drive into the business of bringing people to holiness.

The Benedictine motto is “Ora et Labora,” Latin for “pray and work,” and as the priest soon discovered while serving as pastor of St. Benedict, Baltimore, business acumen can go a long way in helping a faith community. The “monk of Mill Hill” first knew he might have to rely on his keen business sense when vacant and boarded-up houses became a common sight within a mile of his church, which is located in the Mill Hill section of southwest Baltimore. To help ensure the parish’s survival, Father Morlino started a parish volunteer-run business that sells and delivers 200 boxes of codfish cakes each week to local taverns, delis, area churches and residential customers. The priest of 40 years bought the recipe for “the best coddies in Baltimore” from a parishioner who worked out of her home. The coddies, which are now commercially prepared offsite, bring in approximately $30,000 a year in revenue to St. Benedict, Father Morlino said. St. Benedict also operates a successful gift shop, located at the back of the church and staffed by volunteers, that brings in additional income. Father Morlino, who has served as pastor of St. Benedict for two decades, knows a market niche when he sees one. “There’s no religious article store in this area,” he said. “People come in from the suburbs to buy rosaries, wedding gifts and Christmas cards.” Like any successful business that reaches out to its customers, the gift shop also makes house calls. If Father Morlino is conducting a mission at another church, for example, he’ll ship the religious articles ahead of his arrival or transport the merchandise in his car. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” he said. “My father told me I’d never starve to death.” Those two enterprises, along with income from bingo, church suppers, and flea markets, help the parish meet its routine expenses. Unconventional landlord Rental income, another source of revenue for the parish, is of two types: commercial and residential. After the parish school closed in the late 1980s, the building became something of a white elephant to insure and maintain. But like any visionary who has turned lemons into lemonade, Father Morlino has learned to think of church property as an asset. He has leased space in the former school to a variety of nonprofit organizations. Current occupants include a Head Start program, a local council of the Knights of Columbus, and Moveable Feast, which prepares and delivers more than 600 meals a day free of charge to homebound AIDS patients in the greater Baltimore metropolitan area and to low-income women recovering from breast cancer. Although reluctant to advertise, Father Paschal has been fortunate to find his tenants by word of mouth. “We specifically wanted a site in the city,” said Vic Basile, executive director of a Moveable Feast, which has a two-year lease and rents 5,000 square feet of space from St. Benedict’s former school. The nonprofit’s old location had been sold and the 30-employee organization needed office space, kitchen facilities, and room for its eight delivery trucks to restock – in a hurry. “We were looking at Catholic schools that had closed, but none was available,” said Basile. Then he discovered St. Benedict. It was a win-win for both parties. As with other non-priestly duties at the parish, Father Morlino learned property management on the job when he started renting residential property the church owns. The first row house was a gift from a parishioner. Since then, the faith community has acquired a total of 13 row houses; some were gifts, others cost approximately $18,000 each. All but one of these houses is paid for - with bingo proceeds or financial assistance from the Benedictine Society. Some of the houses are vacant, one is for sale, and the rest are for rent, Father Paschal said. Three Sisters of Notre Dame live in one house; seven Daughters of Charity in another. Father Morlino charges other renters just enough to pay the property taxes on the house and the water bill. Elizabeth “Betty” Cheeks, 77, for example, pays $200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment the church owns on St. Benedict Street. Cheeks, who volunteers in the church rectory and at Moveable Feast, had rented another apartment a few miles away for 20 years, but she wanted to be on one floor. “It gives me peace of mind knowing I’m not going to fall down (the steps),” she said. She likes the fact Father Morlino calls to check up on her periodically. Leroy Nelson, a recovering drug addict who is on disability, used to rent a one-bedroom apartment nearby for $300 a month, but that place had no running water, he said. Now he rents a one-bedroom from St. Benedict for $200 a month. “I love it,” Nelson said. “He’s always helping people out,” he said of Father Morlino. Father Morlino said the best part of being a priest is “helping people put their lives back together when they’ve fallen apart, and then helping them feel good about themselves.” The monk of Mill Hill realizes he’s an unconventional landlord, but that enables him to balance his financial responsibilities to the parish with his social conscience. “I don’t do things by the book,” he said. “But it works. You got to stick your neck out or nothing gets done.” Not surprisingly, Father Morlino has become a leader in his community. “If you own property, you can have more of a say about what goes on in the neighborhood,” he said. The priest is president of a group of nine neighborhood associations that meet monthly at the church to work together on common problems, such as code enforcement or lead paint abatement and meets regularly with a community liaison attached to the local Baltimore City police station, which is about a mile away from the church. Connie Fowler, president of the Carrollton Community Association, said she has worked with Father Morlino on local beautification programs and efforts to rid the neighborhood of drug dealers and prostitution. “He tries to encourage people who live around the church to live right,” she said. Although his abbot has encouraged him to retire, the monk of Mill Hill has resisted. The priest has an ambitious to-do list: finding a tenant for the parish gymnasium, creating low-income housing for seniors on property adjacent to St. Benedict, raising enough money to repair the church’s stained-glass windows and more. “I feel like I’m making a difference,” he said.

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Republished by Catholic Online with permission of The Catholic Review, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Md. (www.catholicreview.org).

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