For 170 years, the Gunpowder Friends Meeting House in Sparks has offered respite from a troubled world, giving visitors a peaceful place where they can commune with God.
But last week, the troubles of the world came to the meeting house, with vandals smashing out the windows, bashing down the front door and using ancient benches as battering rams to smash through the plaster walls of the picturesque, fieldstone building.
"It has us desperate about the situation," said Lois Sexton, an 18-year member of the meeting house in Northern Baltimore County. "We can't figure out who is doing this, or why."
Jack Matthews, a lifelong neighbor and member of the meeting house board of trustees, said the meeting house was vandalized last Tuesday and Saturday nights. He said he saw a parade of cars trekking to the meeting house every night last week starting Tuesday.
"We've always had a few minor problems, and we've accepted that," Mr. Matthews said. "But it's never been so systematic or so malicious."
The meeting house has always led a double life of sorts, attracting both worshipers and casual visitors.
Each Sunday, the meeting house on Quaker Bottom Road is home for holy meditation, as 30 to 60 Quakers commune in the tranquillity of the surrounding hills and farms.
On Saturday afternoons, it becomes a destination for picnickers, teen-agers and sightseers, who enjoy the vistas of cornfields, the chirping birds perched in nearby trees and the sheep grazing in the meeting house cemetery.
The weekend crowds often prompted Mr. Matthews to walk the hilly grounds a few days each week, picking up stray beer bottles and junk-food wrappers.
But last week things got out of hand, as vandals hit the secluded spot with an unholy wrath more often found in urban settings.
In the two incidents, $10,000 in damages were reported at the sparsely furnished, one-story meeting house that members say goes back to 1821.
The vandalism has left the Quakers stunned by the magnitude of the damages and baffled about who would commit such crimes -- and how to prevent a reoccurrence.
Mr. Matthews, who can see the meeting house from his front window a quarter-mile away, keeps a close watch most nights for vandals, but he said that doesn't help much.
"Eventually, I have to go to sleep," he said.
Besides, not everyone who arrives is a vandal. Mr. Matthews said he hesitates to call the police because the visitor driving up the hilly road to the site may be a pilgrim seeking solitude.
Neighbors have tried writing down car license plates, but that also has proved useless. There is no proof that the owners of the cars recorded were responsible for the vandalism.
The Quakers have added spotlights outside the meeting house, but the lights became targets themselves. One light was recently broken.
For the first time, the group's board has agreed to install an electronic alarm. The board will also be locking the building up for the first time in 30 years.
"The isolation of the area is apparently what's very enticing," Mr. Matthews said.
Until about two years ago, Mr. Matthews said, he used to go to the meeting house to talk with whoever was visiting. He found that most of the visitors, even at night, were receptive to his pleas to leave the place unharmed.
But he stopped approaching the visitors about two years ago when police began discouraging it for his own safety.
Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a Baltimore County police spokesman, said police have stepped up patrols in the area. Officers from the Cockeysville station have been instructed to stop at the site whenever possible to discourage unauthorized visits.
He added that the vandals face charges of breaking and entering, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence.
But he acknowledged that it is difficult for police to make an arrest without actually catching someone vandalizing the building.
"We're at a loss as to who's doing it and as to why," he said.