NEW WINDSOR — Whether he's preaching a sermon, computing a pension, visiting a hospital patient or conducting a tour group, the Rev. Walter Zabel's business is people.
"I never met any strangers. I like people," says the 67-year-old Zabel.
Now retired as a minister and as Baltimore Annual Methodist Conference official, Zabel and his wife Nancy occupy the Curator's House at the Strawbridge Shrine, in scenic Wakefield Valley near New Windsor.
Completed just a year ago, the modest, modern rancher contrasts sharply with the three nearby structures, which date from a bygone era.
Zabel's latest assignment came from the non-profit Strawbridge Shrine Association, which is affiliated with the Methodist Conferenceand composed of a board of directors and members interested in preserving the denomination's religious heritage.
The group purchased the shrine in 1973. As curator, Zabel is available to provide information, answer questions, assist visitors and conduct tours.
The site, a working farm since 1740, was designated as a National Methodist Shrine by the General Conference in 1940.
A visit to the site features:
* Strawbridge House and Farm. Robert Strawbridge, first preacher of Methodism in the nation, settled in the area in 1760 and purchased the house and farm in 1773. The first Methodist class met here. Elizabeth Strawbridge, Robert's wife, led the first American Methodist convert, John Evans, to become a Christian in this house. Former owner Arthur Haines, 83, still lives there.
* John Evans House. The first American Methodist class met here after outgrowing the Strawbridge House. In 1978, it was moved from the original site on Marston Road near Route 27. Strawbridge's pulpit was found in the house.
* Log Meeting House replica. This structure was erected in 1982 using colonial-period logs. A historical marker designates the original site on Marston Road, one mile from Route 31.
"It makes a nice day tripfrom Baltimore or Washington," says Zabel. "People like to visit theInternational Gift Shop and get a meal at the Church World Center inNew Windsor while they're here."
Zabel has played host to senior citizens' groups, people interested in Methodist history, church classes, and tours scheduled by ministers. In addition to U.S. visitors, tourists from England and Holland have stopped by, he said.
A native of Indiana, Zabel received a bachelor's degree in sociology and religion from Earlham College, in Richmond, Ind. In 1948, he graduated from the Westminster Theological Seminary at Western Maryland Collegewith a master's degree in sacred theology and divinity. That's wherehe met Nancy.
Zabel has been a pastor for 42 year. His stops include Breezewood, Pa.; Towson, Baltimore County; southern Maryland; Wesley Freedom and Oakland in Sykesville; Burtonsville, Montgomery County; and College Park, Prince George's County.
"I've enjoyed every place I've been," he said.
He also served as executive secretary and pension administrator for the Baltimore Annual Conference, United Methodist Church.
The Zabels' son, William, 38, lives in Lolo, Mont. They have a foster daughter, Bonita Wilson of Westminster, a fostergranddaughter, and a foster great-granddaughter.
In future developments, Zabel envisions a reception center with restrooms, artifacts,pictures and a video in the basement of the Curator's House.
Current major expenses are for publicity material, house payments, insurance and repairs. Zabel tends to some maintenance and mows about six of the 31 acres around the shrine, which is supported by the MethodistConference, membership fees, donations, an annual dinner and United Methodist womens' groups.