'I'm rooted, grounded in this church'

April 16, 1995|By Tom Kesyer | Tom Kesyer,Sun Staff Writer

Evelyn Howard envisions her ancestors, joyful and free, striding through the fields and singing on their way to little Bowen Chapel -- a once-thriving church full of spirit near Uniontown in Carroll County.

But as Christians throughout Maryland gather today to celebrate Easter, Mrs. Howard will attend a far different church. Bowen Chapel no longer thrives. Her church, the church built by her ancestors freed from slavery, has dwindled to seven members. Regular attendance is four or five.

These few worshipers will join Mrs. Howard in today's celebration of hope and rebirth. They will pray and sing and give thanks, realizing that their white clapboard church with its long, rich history survives for one reason: The 77-year-old Mrs. Howard, whom they call Mother Howard, refuses to let it die.

"I'm rooted and grounded in this church," she says in her soft, sweet voice. "We don't have too large a membership right now, but I know it's going to get better. We're going to get more help. That's what we're praying for. I'm quite sure we'll get it."

Mrs. Howard, a gentle woman with a perpetual smile, keeps the church history. She organizes programs of guest singers and speakers. Her husband, George, 71, maintains the church property.

"As long as she lives, there will be services at Bowen Chapel," says its retired pastor, the Rev. Robert S. Jones, 81. "But after her eyes close, I don't know about it. I'd have to say that church will probably close up."

John Henry Thompson, Mrs. Howard's great-great-grandfather, "came up from slavery," as she likes to say, and settled with other former slaves in a small community known as Bark Hill, west of Uniontown along Bark Hill Road. Uniontown is about five miles west of Westminster.

They bought a quarter-acre of land for $50 in 1867 and built a church, which doubled as a school. They named it Bowen Chapel after the oldest member, Frank Bowen, another ancestor of Mrs. Howard. Her grandfather later directed the choir, made up almost exclusively of family members, and her aunt served as organist.

"My mother brought me here when I was a little girl," Mrs. Howard says. "She set me on the first or second seat in the front, and then she went to sing with the choir. That's the same place I still sit today."

Mrs. Howard eventually became the foundation of Bowen Chapel. But even her strength could not repel the forces assailing rural churches throughout the state.

Small communities populated largely by former slaves flourished in Maryland from the late 1800s until the end of World War I. Then residents of small towns began flocking to cities looking for work. Young people left for jobs or college. Those who stayed grew old and died.

As the decades passed, the once vibrant rural congregations all but disappeared. Churches closed or merged. But Bowen Chapel persevered, because Mrs. Howard was not ready to give in.

"I'd say for now, for the few people that we have, we do very good," Mrs. Howard says.

Bowen Chapel is a member of the African Union Methodist Protestant Church conference, but it receives no financial support from the group.

Its pastor since 1992, the Rev. William E. Cherry, is paid out of the offering. He works during the week as a physical-science technician for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Silver Spring. BTC Although his goal is to increase church membership, he'll preach no matter how many show up, even if it's only Mrs. Howard.

"We call her Mother Howard because she just has this motherly way about her," he says. "She's an organizer. She's an adviser. And she's a good cook. She'll put weight on you."

She cleaned houses as a teen-ager and young woman, then worked as a shipment clerk in a Westminster book shop. She and her husband had no children, but they raised several. Tambra Smith, 35, was one.

"She's the sweetest, kindest, dearest, most genuine person I've ever known," says Ms. Smith, a member of Bowen Chapel's board of trustees. "She's just a very spiritual person. That church means everything to her.

"And Pop [her name for Mr. Howard], even though he sits in the shadows and doesn't say much, he supports her all the way," Ms. Smith says. "If anything goes wrong at the church, he'll fix it."

Ms. Smith and her sister, Anita Gist, who also lived with the Howards, help Mr. Howard clean the church. Ms. Gist belongs to another church, but attends Bowen Chapel to support Mrs. Howard.

"When she talks about the history, she goes way, way back," says Ms. Gist, 34. "You can just watch as this big smile comes across her face. She's remembering all the good feelings, all the good times she's had in that church. Two people could show up, and she'd still be singing."

Mrs. Howard remembers walking 30 minutes to church Sunday mornings with her mother and grandmother to light the fire in the church's stove. Then she walked home, got dressed and walked back for the service.

She remembers dances and dinners and the church filled plenty of times, maybe a hundred people raising the rafters in praise of the Lord. But those days are past.

Yet on any given Sunday -- say, today, Easter Sunday -- Mrs. Howard rises to her feet in this country church and sings in her clear, strong voice. The others sing, too, but Mrs. Howard's voice, so intimate with this place, soars into every crevice. And a little chapel so empty, once again feels so full.

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