July 18, 2008

The Homeless Guy on Bench in Front of Salem Lutheran Church

Mark Hoffmann sits on the steps of Salem Lutheran Church Friday in Catonsville, Md.
Credit: Gail Burton
Man Finds His Way Home
By Lorraine Ahearn Staff Writer
Greensboro - News Record

To make a long, stranger-than-fiction story short, he went home.
Or at least, Mark Hoffmann got as close as he could get — the front steps of his parents’ church 331 miles from here, in a town near Baltimore.
Hoffmann, 51, the shy, enigmatic homeless man who was for years a fixture at Friendly Center, mysteriously vanished in May. To the circle of people who had befriended him since 2001, he left a single clue: On his last morning in Greensboro, he bought a road map of the eastern U.S.
Last Sunday morning, after months of reported sightings of him walking along the interstates in a path that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, his itinerary became clear. He was bound for St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville, Md., three blocks from his boyhood home.
In hindsight, the parish where he grew up and went to school through 8th grade is an obvious destination. But how he got there — carrying his belongings, apparently walking north for a month — is as unlikely as the way he was finally located.
Last weekend, a News & Record subscriber who lives near Hoffmann’s former bench at the Friendly greenway happened to be visiting in-laws in Catonsville, an old, tree-lined suburb not far from the Patuxent River.
When Sunday morning came, Mary Kay Auer decided to go to the 9 o’clock mass at her in-laws’ church. Running late, she chose the old chapel next to the main church and took a seat in a rear pew.
In the corner of her eye, she saw a man who looked homeless, holding the hymnal close to his eyes. There was something familiar about him.
“He looked just like the man in Greensboro,” said Auer, who had been following Hoffmann’s story, but initially thought it was a coincidence. “But then I’m sitting there looking at him, and I think, 'Wait a minute. He’s got all the same stuff — the bundles, the golf umbrella. How can this be?’ ”
At St. Mark’s, where parish records show Hoffmann’s elderly parents died in 1994 and ’95, church members had already taken notice of the stranger. He first appeared a month ago, said church business manager Nora Reiter, and each day sat on a bench by the statue of St. Mary, waiting to go to the 7:45 a.m. service.
“There’s this sense of peace about him, and he’s very polite,” said Reit­er, who helps serve communion at the early Mass. “His hands were so dirty, at first I didn’t want to put the host in them. But you know, Jesus was a carpenter. His hands were probably dirty, too.”
Little did she know his connection to St. Mark’s. The graduate of Mount St. Joseph High, Lehigh University and former accountant at Duke had battled schizophrenia for decades and was presumed dead by his three older, long-estranged siblings.
But meanwhile, in North Carolina, Hoffmann’s whereabouts had been a question of intense interest. His photo and description had recently been circulated by Highway Patrol commanders and police concerned for his safety. Homeless outreach workers scoured roadsides where readers described spotting him — correctly, as it turns out — wearing gray sweat pants and a blue coat.But no one was more interested in finding him than Kimberly Bono, Hoffmann’s oldest daughter. Bono, 27, hadn’t seen her father since her parents divorced when she was 8. She learned only one month ago that he had been in Greensboro since 2001 but had recently disappeared.
Bono, fearing her father might slip away again, lost no time when told that Hoffmann had been seen in Catonsville and that church members positively identified him from a photo.
With her husband and newborn daughter, Bono got in her car in Stroudsburg, Pa., and drove 31/2 hours Thursday night to Catonsville. Friday morning at 7:30, she walked to the bench by the statue of Mary, where a man in gray sweat pants and a blue coat was sitting.
“Dad,” she said, “it’s Kimberly. Do you remember me?”
She held her breath as he searched her face with his ice-blue eyes.
“I don’t recognize you,” he said softly. “But I remember you.”
When it came time for church, the young family waited outside St. Mark’s while Hoffmann went in. When he emerged, Bono knew anything could happen.
“I fully expected him to come out of Mass and walk the other way,” she said, but was surprised when he didn’t, and even accepted her invitation for a ride to get breakfast.
Slowly, not pressing too hard, Bono learned that Hoffmann recalls having two younger daughters. He told her he had not seen any family since coming home to Catons­ville, but didn’t say whether he knows that his parents have died, their funerals held only a few months apart at St. Mark’s.
Though unwashed and unshaven, Hoffmann politely declined the offer of a motel room, Bono said, before the family drove home promising to visit again.
When St. Mark’s offered to get him to a homeless shelter, he declined that, too. Sleeping in the woods, church members believe, Hoffmann appears to be following a similar pattern to the life he had in Greensboro, where on Easter Sunday in 2001, he showed up unannounced at Centenary United Methodist Church near the bench at Friendly.
Church members at Centenary said they were thankful last week to learn that no harm had come to their friend. Meanwhile, 331 miles away, the parishioners at St. Mark’s appeared thankful as well.
He came home to them and was having the same effect on St. Mark’s that he had on Centenary.
Not that St. Mark’s hadn’t fulfilled its obligation — Friday, for instance, was the parish’s turn to send casseroles to the big downtown mission in Baltimore, Our Daily Bread.
Still, that was arm’s-length. Impersonal. Mark Hoffmann was anything but. One church member wanted to see about getting him eyeglasses to help him read. Another sought to replace his tattered clothes.
And Nora Reiter, the church business manager who at first didn’t want to put the communion wafer in his hand, never seems to go straight home anymore.
She may have worked 10 or 12 hours, and she may want nothing more than to turn right on Frederick Road to go home and cook supper. But then she sees the man on the bench beside the statue of Mary. Next thing you know, she’s turning left to go to McDonald’s and get him something to eat.
“He always gives you that beautiful smile and quietly says, 'Thank you,’ ” Reiter said. “He’s become my gadfly. My walking, talking Jesus Christ who reminds me: 'Whatever you do for this guy, you do for me.’ ”
So on Friday, they took the frozen casseroles downtown to the mission as usual, then moved to the next order of business. And that was to get Mark Hoffmann a new pair of running shoes. After 331 miles, the shoes he was wearing didn’t look like they could go another step.
Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or lorraine.ahearn@news-record.com


Any Given Tuesday said...

Great story, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Been following the “What’s Happening in Catonsville .” The article today about the homeless man on the front of the church steps was excellent. It shows the true character of a neighborhood how they consider the most vulnerable among them.

I’m so impressed by what you are doing for Catonsville . I’m on my third Catonsville house; I just love it here. The Catonsville Gourmet and Strawberry Field are fabulous. I no longer go to Ellicott City and Columbia for dinner. As a local musician, I also appreciate the Frederick Road Fridays and hope they will continue.

I would love to see something great happen with the Frederick Road property where Objects Found used to do business. The building on the way to Ellicott City now being used as a produce stand? How about a Blues Supper Club? Fine food, excellent music, ample parking. Plus the area is gaining quite a reputation for breeding some excellent blues bands. With Catonsville ’s well educated, aged 40+ demographic it could be a big hit. I’m a marketer; could we build a coalition around this?

Here’s a link to an excellent CD by local blues artists called Baltimore on Tap. Automatic Slim, who played at Lurman recently, is one of them.

Love to talk about it sometime.

Lil Hughes Knipp

On the Lighter Side!

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