Century-old Church Tries To Rebound

New Minister Hopes To Expand Congregation

November 17, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Silence blankets the Curtis Bay United Methodist Church, broken onlyby the faint sounds of an elderly woman scrubbing the basement floor.

The exquisite cherry-wood sanctuary stands nearly empty, echoingwith the ghosts of hundreds of members who died or moved away. On this quiet corner overlooking the industrial smokestacks, where 25 people gather on a typical Sunday, it's hard to imagine the thriving church that once existed.

But to the new minister, the Rev. Betty Lee Roche, the church isn't just old -- even though it celebrates its 100th anniversary today,and the membership averages age 70.

To her, the place is full of promise.

"Inner-city ministry is my first love, so I'm in hog heaven here," says Roche, who arrived in July. "Most aging churches struggle. The reality is, with limited members and resources, we don't succeed in everything. I'm aware of that, but I'm still enamored with it. There's so much you can do."

For the handful of loyal members celebrating the church's centennial, the place stands as a tribute to acentury of Methodism in Curtis Bay and Brooklyn Park.

More importantly, to the 25 people who attend faithfully, the church represents a struggle to survive.

Methodism arrived in the area in the 1700s through circuit-riding preachers. The original congregation, dating to 1890, met in private homes and, in the summer, in a tent, says church historian Mabel J. Holmes.

The South Baltimore Improvement Association donated a lot for the church building, replaced by the present building in the early 1920s. During World War I, the church prospered as people came to the city to work in war plants.

But the GreatDepression made a deep dent in church membership, as people left Curtis Bay and went back to the farms, Holmes says. The church grew during World War II, with another influx of war industry workers.

In the 1960s, Baltimore street crime caused many people and factories to move away from Curtis Bay. An even greater decline in church membership came in the 1970s, as the children of members grew up and moved away, and elderly members died.

Now the small congregation is barelykeeping body and soul together.

"We're mostly old people," says Beatrice Jones, a church member from the Brooklyn Park area.

But toRoche, an aging church is the most endearing kind of challenge.

She praises the warmth of the church members, who welcome her into their homes with immediate friendship. And she bubbles with plans to build the membership.

"I want to bring in enough children to start a Sunday School," she says, "although it's a problem of how we'd staff it with the few people we have."

Drawing young families to this red brick sanctuary, just over the county line, is a tall order, and Roche knows it.

But she still has the determination that propelled her in middle age to quit her secretarial job and earn a nursing degree in Baltimore -- just so she could support herself while studying theology.

After earning a master's degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, Roche 10 years ago went to her first church,in Baltimore's inner city. Now at 64, she's experienced at dealing with the problems accompanying aging city churches: not enough money, not enough members, not enough young members to do the church work.

But Roche, who wears penny loafers with real pennies in them and exudes the wisdom of a kindly grandmother, says it's "exciting to look forward to how we can serve people in the church and the community."

Remembering one's roots is good, too, she says, and so the church is celebrating this afternoon with a 3 p.m. display of historical memorabilia at the church, a celebration service at 4 p.m. and a buffet dinner two hours later.

As historian, Holmes sums up the congregation's hopes when she quotes a sermon from a few years back, in which a speaker referred to the first sermon preached by the Apostle Peter.On this landmark occasion in early Christian history, the gospel of Luke records, God "added greatly to their number," and great things began to happen.

"Such things happened because people were not afraid to dream about what could happen and were determined to see that they did happen. Let us dream on, and in faith, begin to live out those dreams," Holmes quotes.

For the new pastor, the goal is simple: "When I do confirmation classes, I have to start with the simplest Bible stories, because people aren't taught about God and the Bible as they used to be. The (gospel) story will not go on unless we begin bringing people back into the church."

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