Once abandoned, old chapel now bustles WEST COUNTY -- Clarksville * Highland * Glenelg * Lisbon

February 18, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Back when Howard County's leading industry was agriculture, and Columbia was a sleepy little crossroads, there wasn't much happening at the corner of Union Chapel and Roxbury Mills Road on Sunday mornings.

There was a run-down, plain-looking building next to the Oak Grove Cemetery, with plaster and paint chips lying about its floor.

It had been a church, but by the early 1960s, termites were its only communicants.

Nowadays one might be able to hear organ music and hymns coming from the 160-year-old Union Chapel, see cars filling its parking lot and perhaps even candlelight shining through the ancient poured-glass windows.

Trustees of the chapel expect to receive county building permits this week for an addition to the chapel, which was all but abandoned 40 years ago by the Methodist Church. A contractor is expected to begin work next week on the project that will send the chapel into the 21st century with indoor plumbing, central heat and a separate meeting room.

"Anybody that comes in here is touching the history of the western county," says the Rev. Harry E. Brunett, vicar of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, which now conducts its services in the renovated chapel.

And it's not the history of mere artifacts and architecture, but a living history made up of Warfields, Pfefferkorns, Hobbses and Riggses -- old Howard County families with original ties to the chapel, and whose descendants attend services there today.

The land for the chapel was deeded to a self-perpetuating board of trustees by Charles D. Warfield, son of Dr. Charles A. Warfield, who led troops against the British in the Revolutionary War. For $1, the land was turned over to the board with the stipulation that the structure be available for the community and the Methodist Church.

Back then, the church had "circuit riders," or clergy who would conduct alternating services at Union Chapel, Jennings Chapel and Poplar Springs churches.

"It was called Union Chapel because the Methodist pastors that would come through here would bring all the Methodists in the community together," says Mr. Brunett, who is now uniting west county Episcopalians under the same roof.

By coincidence, it also became an enlistment site for Union troops in the Civil War, and would have been passed by Confederate troops on their way to a skirmish with the Maryland militia at Cooksville, who failed to stop the rebels' advance to Gettysburg.

"This area was absolutely divided. There were brothers against brothers," says Carville L. Collins, secretary of the chapel trustees and periodic tour guide in the chapel.

So, too, was the chapel, he explains. According to memories passed down through generations, its four doors helped segregate not only blacks from whites, but men from women. Black men and women used separate doors in the back and took their seats in the upper gallery, while white men and women used their separate front entrances to sit across from each other below, Mr. Collins says.

The chapel also pre-dates Glenwood, which was originally named Mathews after the treasurer of the chapel's building committee.

As long ago as 1933, the Methodist Protestant-Recorder observed that the chapel's interior "has been spared the misfortune of modernization." It noted the solid round wooden columns that even today "support a quaint old-fashioned gallery."

Wall-mounted kerosene lamps noted in the centennial article have since been replaced by electric replicas, but the stained-glass memorial window that dominates the interior remains in tact.

The building survives in large part because of its relationship with the relatively young St. Andrew's Church, says Warren G. Sargent, chairman of the chapel's modern-day trustees. The trustees raised money and renovated the church in the 1970s, and began renting it to St. Andrews in 1980.

The new addition "will make it easier for this building to carry its own load," he says. A bathroom and separate meeting room will allow the trustees to rent out the building for small community functions. The improved quarters will also be more hospitable for a new church to rent the chapel when St. Andrew's grows out of it, Mr. Sargent says.

But St. Andrew's still has some growing to do, Mr. Brunett says.

"I look at this as another major organizing effort," says the 57-year-old priest, who has done his share.

Ordained 30 years ago, Mr. Brunett, known to his parishioners as "Harry," spent the early 1960s as parish priest for St. Mark's-on-the-Hill in Pikesville and then St. Paul's Church in Perry Hall.

Then Mr. Brunett went on to minister in other ways, mainly by organizing the improvement of inner-city communities in Baltimore and Chicago under federal and community organizations, and finally with the Rouse Company's American City Corp. in the early 1980s.

From 1984 until last year, Mr. Brunett became involved in retirement housing development and management.

"Between spring '91 and January '92, the people of St. Andrews, whom I had known for some years, asked me if I would consider leaving my job completely and become their [first] full-time vicar," he said. Last February, he accepted their invitation.

The marriage came about because he was a member of St. John's Church, which has sponsored St. Andrew's since 1985. It was first sponsored as a mission of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City. Mr. Brunett is hoping that as St. Andrew's full-time priest, he can build the congregation enough to make it financially self-sustaining.

The church now has about 65 families, from Glenwood, West Friendship, Sykesville, Lisbon, Clarksville, Woodbine and Columbia, so although it is not Methodist, it does meet the chapel's requirement to serve the community.

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