Country Church Finds New Life Through Parish Merger


January 05, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

The year James Rouse was born, 1914, was the same year a tiny white country church was built on Guilford Road. As time passed, the direction of one would indirectly contribute to the near failure of the other -- that is, until recently.

For its first 40 or so years, the Alberta Gary Memorial United Methodist Church thrived. The church was named for the late daughter of a U.S. postmaster general who also owned the nearby Guilford Cotton Mill and gave a substantial sum toward construction of the church.

The church, which could seat about 100 people, was built with stained glass windows and a baptismal font hand-carved by a parishioner.During the late 1940s and early '50s it had active Sunday school andyouth programs, and during its peak in the 1960s, as many as 75 people from surrounding neighborhoods attended services each Sunday.

"We had a women's society and a choir. . . . I remember when everyone was related to someone else," said church organist Jean Miller, 58, whose granddaughter is the fourth generation in the family to attend the church.

But in the 1960s, Rouse began buying nearby homes to make way for industrial development. People started moving out of the neighborhoods. It was the beginning of the church's decline.

As thecounty grew, the church got squeezed between Interstate 95 and Route32. Today, drivers can see the church easily from Route 32, but may have trouble getting to it if they are unfamiliar with the area.

"After the younger people grew up during the '80s, we were an elderly congregation," said Doug Connell, a 74-year-old Glenwood resident whohas belonged to Alberta Gary since 1924. "Since we had no Sunday school, that was another problem. But how do you start a Sunday school without children?"

With a dwindling congregation and a part-time minister scheduled to depart last year, the church's programs began to disappear. By last spring, the congregation was down to 16, includingtwo couples who traveled from Westminster every Sunday.

That's when Glen Mar United Methodist Church entered the picture.

Glen Mar and Alberta Gary share a common thread. Both started well before the birth of Columbia as small, country-type churches in rural neighborhoods where everyone seemed to know everyone else.

But Glen Mar, which is nine miles from Alberta Gary, flourished with the boom of Columbia. The 38-year-old church has grown from 56 founding members to about 1,400. It is said to be the fastest-growing United Methodist church in the Baltimore Conference, which includes more than 700 churches from Maryland, West Virginia and Washington.

The Rev. Anders Lunt recalls discussing "the potential of this location" 13 years ago whenhe came to Glen Mar as pastor. At the time, it had about 300 members, and only 40 to 50 of them attended church regularly. Its sanctuary was a fraction of the 14,000-square-foot space that would be built in1989. The church is now packed to the pulpit with about 650 Sunday-morning worshipers.

By the time the new sanctuary was built, plans were already under way for more space for offices and Sunday school classrooms. Lunt and others began to consider establishing a "satellite" congregation for parishioners in southern Columbia.

At the sametime, a search was under way for a new pastor for Alberta Gary.

The idea of combining the congregations was discussed by Lunt and Gerald Weiss, district superintendent of the Baltimore Southwest districtof the conference. And after further discussion between both congregations, they accepted the idea last May.

The combined congregationwas made official during a ceremony Oct. 6 as the Glen-Gary Greater Parish.

Glen Mar's four ministers now alternate Sundays at AlbertaGary and conduct weddings and baptisms there too.

In addition, eight Glen Mar families, or "missioners," have volunteered to commit their time and service to Alberta Gary for at least one year.

"The key is the missioners," Lunt said. "They are a very diverse group. Several are families with young children, several are 'empty-nest' couples and several are retirees. They represent some of the strongest leadership from Glen Mar."

The merged churches also began a vacation Bible school in July. Lunt said that 24 children, most from the surrounding neighborhoods, attended the weeklong program. In addition, about eight children, ages 3 to 6, with an occasional one or two older children, have been attending Sunday school at Alberta Gary.

"We have encouraged a number of joint activities for members of each churchto attend," Lunt said.

"There is a need for more organization," he said. "A small congregation can operate like a family without a lotof organization, but as it gets larger, there's a need for more."

At the same time, he said, the missioners have been "reluctant to take charge" and are conscious of wanting to preserve the heritage of Alberta Gary.

"We want to help but not overwhelm. . . . That has meant slower but healthier progress," Lunt said. "We have to build the relationship first."

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