Episcopalians sing in former synagogue

DISPLACED BUT NOT DISMAYED

July 05, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Under the dome of a former synagogue yesterday, God's eye was on the sparrow and on the St. James' Episcopal congregation, whose West Baltimore landmark church was struck by lightning two weeks ago.

Singing a spirited "His Eye is on the Sparrow," about 300 of the church's members worshiped in unfamiliar surroundings, the Prince Hall Masons' Grand Lodge. From 1892 to 1960, this lofty structure on Eutaw Place had been Temple Oheb Shalom.

Led by the Rev. Michael B. Curry, St. James' strong-voiced rector, the Episcopalians soon trans formed their borrowed space with reassuring words and music -- "We're marching to Zion," "What a friend we have in Jesus," "On Christ the solid rock I stand," "O Master, let me walk with thee."

And if any pessimism remained in the air over the Lafayette Square fire -- caused by what the insurance adjusters call an act of God -- it seemed to take flight as they sang:

Why should I be discouraged, why should the shadows come,

Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav'n and home

When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He.

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

But reminders of the June 20 disaster could not be avoided.

The congregation's prayer books and hymnals, ruined by the water that put out the fire after lightning struck the rooftop cross, have been replaced temporarily by typed excerpts, the spoken word on white paper, the sung on green.

Precisely how long the congregation must deal with such makeshift solutions was an open question yesterday.

"We've got a long-distance race ahead of us," Father Curry told his parishioners. "We don't know how long we will be out of our beloved church. It may be a year, it may be a year and a half. . . .

"We will take our time, learn from our architects. We are not in a hurry. Stone by stone, brick by brick, we'll do it right."

He said before the service that, although initial estimates put the cost of restoring the Gothic Revival edifice at Lafayette and Arlington avenues as high as $500,000, the nature and extent of the damage is still being assessed.

Mosaic floor tiles are being pulled up and scaffolding erected inside the sanctuary so that the church's celebrated timber arches and the beams and trusses of its roof -- "a massive thing," he called it -- can be examined.

The ornamental wooden pews have been removed and stored. It will be at least several weeks before the extent of the water damage to them is known, the priest said.

"We believe the insurance should pretty much take care of the major stuff," Father Curry said. "We believe everything of historical value can be salvaged."

The congregation was established in 1824 as St. James' First African Protestant Episcopal Church. With nearly 800 members, it is now a strong parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland -- a fact that Bishop A. Theodore Eastman underscored by his participation June 27 in its first Sunday worship at the temporary Eutaw Place location after the fire.

Father Curry said insurance covers "alternative worship space -- this is very helpful."

In the rector's sermon yesterday, the first of a four-part series entitled "The Secrets of the Slaves," he told the members of the black congregation they had much to learn from their pre-Civil War ancestors.

"They knew how to survive with pride. . . . Let us not complain or grumble, and when we criticize, let us do it constructively," he said.

Noting that it was not President Harry S. Truman but African slaves who first warned, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," Father Curry declared at the top of his preaching voice, "Let us stand up and do the work that God intended us to do. If you can't stand the heat --" His voice was drowned out by applause.

A parishioner said afterward, "We had a fire, but we didn't put the light out in the preacher, did we?"

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