Bells chiming again at Christ's Episcopal New congregation revives old church

October 21, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich

The bells were silent for five long years while the old stone church stood empty.

Even after George P. Mahoney, the colorful millionaire contractor and perennial political candidate, bought Christ's Episcopal Church to save its bells, nobody showed up on Sunday mornings. The parish house became an architect's office, and the historic church in the heart of Baltimore remained vacant.

Yesterday, the bells tolled once again. A new congregation marched up the stairs, threw open the doors and filled the sanctuary with shouts of praise, Gospel hymns and prayer.

More than 500 parishioners and visitors crowded into the Gothic-style pews at 11:30 a.m. to dedicate the New Refuge Deliverance Cathedral.

During a rousing three-hour service, members of the black Pentecostal congregation clapped and swayed to the beat of drums, shook tambourines and danced down the aisles. Women wiped away tears and cried out "Thank you, Jesus" as the Rev. Naomi C. DuRant prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill the church.

"This is a glorious day," said the well-known radio personality, who founded a storefront church with eight members in 1967 and now heads a congregation of more than 1,000.

Ms. DuRant led several hundred parishioners on a three-mile march from the church's last home on South Patterson Park Avenue to the gray stone cathedral at St. Paul and Chase streets. A marching band played, majorettes twirled batons, and deacons waved to curious bystanders.

"I think it's great for the church to serve this community once again," said Stephen T. Milburn of East Baltimore, who has been active in Pentecostal churches since his conversion at age 12. "We need a church on every corner."

New Refuge will offer noonday services for the business crowd and healing services for the physically and spiritually ill, Ms. DuRant said.

Christ's Episcopal Church closed in 1986 after the congregation, which had dwindled to just 61 members, could no longer shoulder maintenance costs. Built in 1871, the church features stained-glass windows by Tiffany and Westlake, an elaborately carved pulpit and a Gothic bell tower. Much of the church was frayed and fading when the parish decided to sell it.

Mr. Mahoney, who became Maryland's best-known losing candidate in 13 bids for governor, the U.S. Senate, the state House of Representatives and Baltimore County executive, stepped in and bought the church for $425,000 in spring 1987.

He said he loved the sound of the bells, which he listened to from his ninth-floor suite in the Belvedere Hotel overlooking the church.

The 87-year-old politician and paving contractor died in March 1989 without realizing his dream of a renaissance. When he bought the church, he said he hoped another group would use it for religious purposes.

But a week before his death, Mr. Mahoney was so uncertain about the future that he sold the parish house to architect Stephen A. Glassman and planned to offer the church itself for $1.15 million.

A year later, Ms. DuRant was searching for another church to house her rapidly growing congregation when she passed Christ's Episcopal. She felt at once that her long journey, which began at the storefront church and included stops at a synagogue, a theater and a Roman Catholic church, was at an end.

"This is my permanent home, I hope," said the 53-year-old minister, who was a gospel announcer and program director on WBGR-AM until August. She is continuing her religious studies at Morgan State University.

With the help of James McLean, husband of Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean, Ms. DuRant persuaded the Mahoney family to allow New Refuge to use the church. George P. Mahoney Jr. could not be reached last night to discuss the agreement with the New Refuge congregation, which has spent the last year raising money and restoring dilapidated parts of the church.

Councilwoman McLean, who last month won the Democratic primary for city comptroller, stood up during yesterday's service to praise Ms. DuRant's work and thank the parish for supporting her in the election.

"I am so happy to be here this morning, I got this big grin on my face," she said to loud applause. "I recognize you are finally home."

Ms. DuRant said she promised the Mahoney family that the bells will peal out for every service and that the church will be filled with music again. She also plans to hold an annual memorial service to honor Mr. Mahoney's grand gesture.

Members dug deep to fill the collection plates for more renovations and upkeep. Many said they were overcome with excitement and awe at their new church.

"It's just overwhelming," said Deaconess Earline Meredith, admiring the carvings of the apostles on the pulpit. "It's breathtaking."

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