[Listed July 28, 1983; Inventory Number B-3691]
St. Leo's Church is significant both architecturally and for its association with 19th-century Italian immigration and with the establishment of the Italian community in Baltimore. St. Leo's is the first church in Maryland, and among the first in the nation, founded and built specifically for Italian immigrants. Besides housing Italian-language religious services, it sponsored and housed a variety of social, humanitarian, and civic programs aimed at acclimating Italian immigrants to life in America.
Immigrants from Italy began arriving in Baltimore in the early 19th century, and continued arriving in a small but steady flow through the 1850's. They settled around President Street very near the area today known as Little Italy. After the Civil War, immigration from Italy burgeoned. While some new arrivals were coming from all parts of Italy, most were artisans and laborers from Naples, Abruzzi, and Sicily. They continued to settle along President Street and its environs to the east, Albemarle, Stiles, and Exeter Streets. (By 1870, between one-third and one-half of that area's population was Italian.)
Being devout Catholics for the most part, they immediately sought out the nearest Catholic church, which at that time was St. Vincent de Paul on North Front Street. Beginning in 1874, St. Vincent de Paul sponsored Italian-language services, but it was not adequate to handle such a large influx of non-English-speaking congregants, and it was not conveniently located for the Italian community. Therefore, the local Catholic hierarchy decided to establish an Italian parish, as it had earlier set up Irish and German parishes. Part of the role of these ethnic churches was to acclimate immigrants to life in America, and assist in their assimilation.
The lots for St. Leo's were purchased in June 1880 and construction must have begun shortly thereafter; by the time the cornerstone was laid in September 1880, the ground level was already complete to a height of ten feet. (The cornerstone was installed at the base of the main story.) The building was completed and dedicated in September 1881. As the social and spiritual focus of Baltimore's Italian community, St. Leo the Great Church was the natural center for a variety of mutual aid societies, citizenship classes, and social service and community action organizations throughout the period of sizable immigration from Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, for most Italian immigrants to Baltimore, it was the major institutional entry into American cultural, social, political, and economic life.
Architecturally, the St. Leo's building represents an unusual mix of Italianate, Romanesque, and Classical elements, and is a good example of High Victorian eclecticism applied to a church. Designed by E. Francis Baldwin, it represents the work of a major figure in late 19th century Baltimore architecture. It also presents an interesting contrast with the bulk of Baldwin's better-known work, which was in commercial and industrial architecture.
Baldwin was one of Baltimore's foremost architects in the late nineteenth century. He worked in a wide range of building types and styles, and his early career included a few other church projects, including enlargements of the Basilica of the Assumption and of St. John's Church on East Eager Street. With his early partner, Bruce Price, he designed the Gothic Revival Christ Church on Chase Street. But he is best known for his commercial and industrial work. His greatest industrial monument, the Mount Clare Roundhouse, is a National Historic Landmark. And later, with partner Josias Pennington, he was part of the most important local architectural firm of the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. Much of Baldwin and Pennington's work was in the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style, including the Mount Royal Station (a National Historic Landmark), the Maryland Club, and the Fidelity Building. St. Leo's Church presents an unusual and interesting example of the early work of a master, contrasting sharply in style and scale with his mature work.