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History detective

Author discovers rich history behind Catonsville community he calls home

Created date

May 21st, 2014

Not many people can say they live in a former seminary. But thanks to John Strumsky, the 2,300 men and women who do, now know the rich history behind Charlestown, the community they call home. 

John has always had a penchant for history. Whether penning the history of Baltimore City or digging up facts about the history of farming in America, the former marine loves learning about the past. 

“I love writing about history, researching different topics, and digging around to find the truth about what really happened,” says John.

Now he has the perfect platform to pursue his passion at Charlestown. John hosts a television show called Looking Back: Eyewitnesses to History, which airs on Charlestown’s in-house TV station. 

“I write a new episode every other week, and most of them require over a week’s worth of research and writing,” says John. “I’ve done shows on the history of Armistice Day, the King Ranch, the history of auctions, women’s history, and more.” 

Closer to home

So, not surprisingly, when John’s wife Dawn suggested he research and write about the history of Charlestown, the Catonsville Erickson Living community they’ve called home for the last three years, he didn’t waste any time. 

Charlestown’s 110-acre campus, formerly the St. Charles College and Seminary, has been a part of Catonsville’s landscape for the last 31 years. As a result, the community has its own extensive archives, which hold written documents, newspaper clippings, and photos regarding Charlestown’s rich history. 

“The Charlestown archives are only open Mondays from 10 a.m. to  noon,” says John. “But after I met with Faye Redding, Charlestown’s head librarian and chief archivist, and she discovered how much time I was devoting to this project, she agreed to meet with me three to four days a week to help me dig up pertinent data.” 

During one of those expeditions, John discovered the writings of Jean Whittaker, one of the first residents to move into Charlestown and the cousin of Father J. Alphonse Frederick, a seminarian who lived on the St. Charles campus and who was later ordained into the Sulpician priesthood. 

“She left detailed accounts from when she was a little girl and she visited Father Frederick at the seminary in the 1920s and 1930s,” says John. 

Several months into the project, John expanded his search to cover records in the Catonsville Library, Baltimore City and Baltimore County courthouses’ real estate records, the Maryland State Hall of Records, and the U. S. Library of Congress. He also conducted at least 40 to 50 personal interviews. 

“I filled dozens of yellow legal pads with handwritten notes and then transferred and organized everything on the computer,” says John. 

One such interview was with Father Leo Larrivee, head of Charlestown’s Catholic parish.

“Father Larrivee was a great source of information,” says John. “He attended St. Charles Seminary as a student in the mid to late 1960s and has written a book on the history of the Our Lady of the Angels chapel. I have fond memories of him and me sitting in my den discussing many of my notes.” 

Colts connection

With his research, John completed a 90-page booklet that covers interesting facts about Charlestown’s property, including how the former Baltimore Colts trained at the campus in the 1970s; the history behind Charlestown’s well-known sunburst logo; and firsthand accounts from Charlestown pioneer residents of what life was like after Charlestown opened its doors in 1983.

The History of Charlestown took 18 months to complete. It was published by Charlestown in June 2013 in conjunction with the community’s 30th anniversary. Four thousand copies were printed and distributed to residents, staff, and potential residents. Two copies were also accepted into the Maryland Historical Society’s library. 

“I discovered a lot about Charlestown I didn’t know,” says John. “I’m proud of the way the project turned out and happy I was able to dig up so much information that had not seen the light of day in many years. But the biggest satisfaction comes from knowing that I followed every lead to its ultimate conclusion and had presented the material as accurately as possible.”