3 centuries of art in holy repository Treasury: Old St. Paul's, the city's oldest congregation, has a collection of carefully preserved ecclesiastical art that includes 1690s books, mosaics and an altar cross embedded with valuable stones.

March 27, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Baltimore is often overlooked by home-bound evening commuters, but the city's oldest religious congregation

possesses a treasury overflowing with carefully preserved ecclesiastical art.

Its inventory starts with a remarkable collection of 1690s religious books, kept in a vault and rarely seen. Far more visible within the church's timbered interior are iridescent Tiffany Studio mosaic peacocks and passion flowers, along with an altar cross embedded with semiprecious stones.

Back-and-shoulder to towering downtown office buildings, Gothic Revival stained-glass windows surround a congregation that counts among its members the descendants of illustrious Baltimoreans of the distant past.

It is not surprising that Baltimore's most venerable institution is the repository of a handful of rare books, religious tracts that have belonged to the church since about 1702 and are thought to be the oldest man-made objects in Baltimore.

"They are the oldest evidence of intellectual life in Baltimore," said Robert J. Brugger, history and regional books editor at the Johns Hopkins Press.

Each leather-bound cover is stamped, in frail gold letters, "Belonging to the Library of St. Pauls in Baltemore County."

"The spelling of Baltimore with the 'e' is closer to the original Gaelic," Brugger said, referring to the origins of the place name Baltimore, which comes from a village in County Cork, Ireland.

Shelved for nearly 300 years by the pastors, vestrymen and parishioners of St. Paul's Church, the volumes, which are printed on handmade rag paper, extol the values of a good and pure life. They also win a permanent-attendance award. The church has held them through fire and cholera epidemics since they arrived here with the compliments of the bishop of London.

The books, part of patrimony of the parish, which was established in 1692, warn the "inhabitants in the plantations" of "the tyranny of the devil."

The books, so rare and valuable in the early 1700s, were soon eclipsed by other objects the parish acquired as Baltimore prospered and became more established as a port and mercantile center.

The scions of old Baltimore families (Garrett, Glenn, Williams, Dobbins, Dorsey, Frick, Harwood, Lux, Merryman, Owings, Moale, Philpott, Penniman, Randall, Ridgely, Rogers, Stewart and Warfield) embellished their mother church with rich and artistic memorial tributes.

When today's congregation gathers, it faces an opalescent glass window of heroic size that was made in 1902. Some of the vigilant angels have the faces of St. Paul's parishioners.

In the 1880s, the British firm Clayton and Bell shipped a set of Gothic Revival stained-glass windows, with scenes appropriate to Holy Week. An order of English nuns hand-stitched and embroidered chasubles and copes for solemn liturgical processions. In the 1870s, the parish started its choir of men and boys, which to this day sings in the Anglican tradition.

Of all St. Paul's treasures, the oldest are the books. They arrived on sailing ships before there was a village or town of Baltimore as it is known today. In the 1690s, St. Paul's Church was on Colgate Creek (known in old documents as the Patapsco Neck) near the current Dundalk Marine Terminal. Then as now, it was a tidewater landing.

When the Maryland General Assembly established Baltimore Town in 1729, the vestry of the church acquired the land where the church stands today. A small chapel was started in 1730, and the parish library, including the books, was moved to the current location. At the time, it was on the northern edge of Baltimore Town.

Assembly established Baltimore Town in 1729, the vestry of the church acquired the land where the church stands today. A small chapel was started in 1730, and the parish library, including the books, was moved to the current location. At the time, it was on the northern edge of Baltimore Town.

Over the centuries, the congregation of St. Paul's grew and prospered (its Alex. Brown-invested endowment is $9 million). BTC The original plain brick chapel was torn down. Other buildings came and went, including one claimed by a spectacular 1854 fire. While the church was burning, congregants pulled out venerable objects, including a safe where the books were housed. The current church building dates to 1856.

"This really is a remarkable story. Nobody seems to have made much of them," said the Rev. R. Douglas Pitt, the church's senior minister, whose seafaring ancestors are mentioned in the church's records beginning in 1795. "I don't think they have ever been put out for display. They have been in our safe for decades. Maybe that's why we still have them today."

The books were sent by Thomas Bray, who had the job of promoting the established religion, the Church of England, within the Maryland colony.

"He was determined to restore Christianity and right thinking in Maryland and to put the devil to flight," Brugger said.

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