By BETSY TAYLOR
Bon Secours Baltimore Health System will renovate a shuttered Catholic church in West Baltimore and reopen it later this year as a primary care and wellness center to meet needs in a medically underserved area. The church is two blocks from the system's sole hospital, the 88-bed Bon Secours Hospital.
Bon Secours Baltimore Health System plans to improve health care access for poor residents of West Baltimore by converting St. Martin Church to a primary care and wellness center.
Dr. Samuel Ross is chief executive of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, which operates a network of ambulatory and community services in addition to the hospital. He said in a statement, "nearly 80 percent of our admissions come through the emergency room because residents don't have access to primary care and wellness services." He said the hope is the new health care center will give neighborhood residents ready access to preventive services and comprehensive health care.
West Baltimore has been in the national spotlight since last year, when a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died, allegedly from injuries sustained while in police custody. Six officers have been charged in his death. Gray's death triggered massive protests centered about 2 miles from Bon Secours Hospital and drew attention to the area's blighted and sometimes violent streets.
Many residents in West Baltimore are poor — about a third of families with children under 18 live in poverty — and steady jobs are very hard to come by. The unemployment rate of 24 percent in West Baltimore is double that of the city average, according to data gathered by Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, based on four West Baltimore zip codes.
Compared with the broader city of Baltimore and the state, West Baltimore has the highest percentage of preventable emergency department visits and the worst rates of asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to community needs assessments. In some cases, West Baltimore's disease rates are double or triple those of the city and state.
In some West Baltimore neighborhoods, an average life expectancy of about 62 is 20 years less than the average life expectancy of 82 found in affluent areas like the Roland Park neighborhood, just 4 miles away, said Curtis Clark, Bon Secours Baltimore Health System's vice president of mission.
Clark said the system has worked for decades to address the economic and social issues that lead to poor health outcomes in West Baltimore. It spearheads a coalition of 15 institutions addressing health care concerns there.
"If we don't get out from under the social determinants leading to chronic disease, we're just spinning our wheels," he said. The health care center in the church will be a place for that work to expand.
Much of the effort to address social determinants of health has emanated from the offices of Bon Secours Community Works. The 20-year-old community development division of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System leads housing, health and community development initiatives. Community Works is located across the street from St. Martin Church, the site of the new health center. Other service offerings at Community Works include financial counseling, job readiness training and a federally funded Early Head Start serving low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers up to age three.
Respond and preserve
Bon Secours Baltimore Health System began discussions in early 2014 about the possibility of buying the 150-year-old church from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and converting it into a health care center. It closed on the purchase in September.
Bon Secours Baltimore said it spent $880,000 to purchase the church building and its adjacent rectory. The health care system will spend about $7 million more on renovations to create a four-floor health care center with 30,000 square feet of usable space, Clark said. He explained that the building has a partially below-grade basement and main floor and that two levels will be constructed above that, under the existing roof.
Some of the beautiful architectural features and religious elements, including a bas-relief that depicts several Old Testament and New Testament scenes, side altars and carved and painted Stations of the Cross will be incorporated into the health care center's design. The church's stained glass windows have been donated to another Roman Catholic Church, Clark said.
The repurposing of the building is expected to begin this year and be completed by the end of 2016, according to information from the system. Clark said estimates are that the center will treat 10,000 to 20,000 patients annually. Some of the specifics about the health care center aren't yet known, such as how many new and existing Bon Secours employees will work there.
Health services at the new primary care and wellness center will target gaps identified by a community health needs assessment, including by providing greater access to primary care, behavioral health services, substance abuse treatment and assistance managing chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
New life for neighborhood anchor
St. Martin Church was built in 1865. It merged with two other Catholic parishes in 2004, and St. Martin Church remained open for limited Masses, weddings, funerals and baptisms until 2008, according to information from the health system and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Joyce Smith, 63, lives in the Franklin Square neighborhood where St. Martin is located. She works as a neighborhood advocate and consultant on efforts related to quality of life improvements in low-income and distressed neighborhoods.
She describes the church renovation as a piece of the decades-long effort to improve health care access and stabilize West Baltimore. Smith hopes the opening of the health care center, while bringing more services to the neighborhood, also will allow the professionals who work for Bon Secours Baltimore an opportunity to better understand the needs of residents in the neighborhoods they serve. One way staff at the health care center can help people is with affordable, practical strategies for how they can take care of their own health and fitness, she said.
Many area residents used to attend church services at St. Martin, so it is meaningful in the neighborhood that Bon Secours Baltimore will turn the vacant church into a health care center. She said continued conversations about what people want from the health center will "really maximize its purpose."
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