A place to meet God Gift: Harford County woodworker Edward Russell's altar, carved of Maryland walnut, was blessed yesterday before it begins its journey to his sister's Episcopal parish in South Carolina.

March 17, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

A photo caption in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly identified a man helping to move an altar at a Harford County church. The man's name is Edward Hughes Russell.

The Sun regrets the error.

The climax of Edward Russell's 60-year affinity for woodworking came yesterday with a priest's blessing in tiny St. George's Episcopal Church in Harford County.

The Rev. P. Kingsley Smith stood in his purple vestments, raised his hands over a 5-foot-wide altar Russell had crafted from Maryland walnut and asked God to bless those who pray around it.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But members of the small South Carolina church who will receive the altar already feel blessed.

"We're so thankful he did this," says Russell's sister, Audrey Shore, a member of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Hampton, S.C., where the congregation has worshiped before a large laminated table. "We wanted something that would fit in more with the church."

Shore will transport the altar to Hampton. At her church, it will be dedicated and become the focal point of worship for the 35 members.

"What we're trying to do is make the church a more beautiful place to worship," says the Rev. Holland B. Clark, pastor at All Saints'. "The altar is the place where we meet the Lord."

And this one is probably where Russell's woodworking avocation meets its end.

Russell, 77, a resident of Perryman for 72 years, says the altar probably will be his last piece of woodworking. "It is the most outstanding thing I've done," he says.

The semiretired interior decorator plans to sell his shop on Perryman Road where he has spent 43 years refinishing and upholstering furniture, ending a career that came as somewhat of a surprise.

He was supposed to have been a mechanic, not an interior decorator. Russell worked for seven years at Glenn L. Martin Co., interrupted by two years in the Navy during World War II.

Following a dream

Although he had a good job, Russell wasn't happy at the airplane manufacturer and wanted to pursue woodworking, which he had learned in high school.

Over the strong objections of his father, a Pennsylvania Railroad man who believed in company loyalty, Russell quit Martin and enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Art.

"My father about to disown me," says Russell, a small man with gray hair and a friendly smile.

His weathered hands open a tattered album with faded black-and-white photos of his work. A modern-looking table and chair won him school honors for furniture design.

He stayed for three years in Philadelphia and graduated but was lured back to Harford County by Havre de Grace High School's principal, who wanted Russell to teach woodworking.

He tried but had difficulty disciplining the students, so he cut short his teaching career. He decided instead to go into business for himself, building a shop in 1954 on Perryman Road beside his mother's house.

Russell advertised himself in local newspapers as a furniture restorer, refinisher and upholster, so not many people knew of his skill in woodworking. Nevertheless, over the years, his work came to decorate churches and chapels throughout Harford County.

He built a Communion table and baptismal font for Cranberry United Methodist Church next door to his home in Perryman. He made a Communion table for Hopewell United Methodist Church in Havre de Grace as a memorial to his mother's family. He crafted wood paneling for the sanctuary of St. John's Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace.

And at St. George's Episcopal, where he worships, Russell built stair rails, kneeling benches and chairs, including a bishop's chair he made as a memorial to his father.

But when his sister told him of her church's desire to improve its sanctuary, Russell first tried to buy the pieces. He shopped antique stores in Fells Point and Harford County and finally found an unused bishop's chair and prayer bench at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon.

But he couldn't find a church altar, so a few months ago he decided he would build it.

For a pattern, he turned to the familiar altar at St. George's, where he had worshiped since he was a boy. It was just the right size and style for his sister's church.

His favorite wood

He chose to make the altar of his favorite wood -- walnut -- which he says has unmatched richness and texture. He bought rough planks from a Harford man who had stored them in a barn that was about to be torn down. An old fireplace mantel provided the marble for the top of the altar's back piece.

Russell didn't count the hours he spent planing the planks, cutting the boards and nailing them together. He has no idea how much time he spent with a hammer and chisel tediously carving the words "Holy, Holy, Holy" on the back piece of the altar and the alpha and omega symbols and letters IHS -- Latin for Jesus, Savior of Men -- on the altar front.

Russell says he asked the priest to bless the altar in hopes of attracting more worshipers to his small Perryman church. Although his Episcopal parish, established in 1671, is one of the oldest in the state, membership has dwindled as residents moved away and surrounding land converted to business parks.

With the altar completed, Russell intends to turn his attention to other crafts, such as weaving and needlework, and doubts he will take up another woodworking project.

He can think of no better way to end his avocation.

"I didn't make a fortune at this, but I was happy with what I was doing," he says.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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