When the Rev. Roderick J. Miller says the Union Chapel United Methodist Church congregation built the parsonage where he and his family live near Bel Air, he means it -- literally.
The craftsmanship and care church members put into construction of the house, built in 1987, illustrates why the Union Chapel parish has survived for 170 years,he says.
"The contractor, plumber, electrician, painter, carpenters, wallpaper hangers -- even the people who sold them supplies -- were all church members or connected to church members," says Miller.
"The only thing we had to take bids on was the heating and air conditioning system. They didn't just go and buy a house. Very few churches can say that."
The church, located on Old Joppa Road between U.S. 1 and Route 152, will celebrate its actual 170th anniversary Wednesday, Jan. 30. The congregation conducted special commemorative services Jan. 13.
"When people say "church," they usually mean the building, butin the Bible it means people, not a building," Miller says.
"Whenwe say the Union Chapel United Methodist Church will be 170, we meanthat people called Methodists have been worshiping there in that spot for 170 years."
Miller, 37, has been pastor at the church for 6years. He says the church is "one of the best-kept secrets in the county."
"We're not showy or flashy, and there's no sign saying 'Three miles to Union Chapel.' A lot of people say they found us when they were taking the short cut to Bel Air. But we're growing steadily and rapidly."
The neighborhood where the church is located was knownas Wilna when the Union Chapel congregation was founded in 1821 by worshipers of three faiths: Methodist, Episcopal and Quaker.
That the Methodists would help start the church and remain after 1850 when the Episcopalians and Quakers found other quarters, is not unusual, Miller says, because Harford has a strong Methodist history.
But itis unique, Miller says, for a Methodist congregation to survive intact for 170 years in the county. Several Methodist congregations that started before Union Chapel, such as Thomas Run and Bush River, founded in the 1700s, no longer exist, he notes.
"I think it's pretty unusual for a congregation to have a 170-year unbroken history," says Miller. "Highland Presbyterian just celebrated 100 years, so we're almost twice as old as that."
The original Union Chapel sanctuary was built of logs. Slaves once worshiped in the chapel's gallery. In 1899, a new sanctuary with pews arranged in a semicircle and stained glass windows was built. The original sanctuary was used for other church functions until 1948, when it was declared unsafe.
Although thecongregation renovated the church and school building in the late 1980s, the chapel built in 1899 is still used every Sunday for worship.An addition built in 1961 serves as the education building and church office.
Ruth Burns, 76, a member of Union Chapel since 1937, hasfound memories of her church and fellow parishioners.
"I remembermy father whitewashing the stone foundation when they dug out the basement for the addition, to make it look a little more respectable," she said. Her parents belonged to the congregation before she and herhusband joined.
"And I remember when they hand-dug the well. That's why the congregation has lasted so long, by not only worshiping together, but working together."
Burns also remembers when church officials considered closing the church because the Sunday school class enrollment had dwindled to three students.
"But my mother said, 'As long as there are three students, I'll be there to teach them,' and the idea was dropped," says Burns. "We've had our peaks and valleys like all country churches."
Union Chapel's membership is reaching a new peak, too, says Miller. The congregation, which had 240 members six years ago, has 360 members today. Members come from as far away as Street and Forest Hill and as close as Bel Air and Fallston.
In fact, the congregation has grown so much that in 1989, two services each Sunday were scheduled instead of just one.
"That was a big step to go from one service to two services," says Miller. "But now all the ones that were against it are for it. We're a medium-sized church, but it looks like a small church and feels like a small church."
Traditions, such as the time set aside during worship services for church members to openly share personal joys, troubles and concerns, help maintain the small, community church atmosphere, says Miller.
"After one or two Sundays people know who the newcomers are. During a joys and concerns time during the service, it isn't unusual for people to get up and say, 'Isn't that the couple who was here a few Sundays ago, we're glad to have you back,' " says Miller.
"If you come to this church, somebody's going to talk to you, and it's not because we have a program for visitors."