Icy collapse and renewal Church: Four years after the roof caved in during a winter storm, Grace & St. Peter's is rededicating the renovated building and celebrating its rebirth.

October 02, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It was during ice storms of the winter of 1994. Vestryman Roger L. Marks was inside the Grace & St. Peter's Parish House in Mount Vernon when he heard what sounded like an airplane landing on the church roof.

There was no plane. It was the sound of the church roof caving in under the weight of frozen water.

On Sunday, Grace & St. Peter's, at Park Avenue and Monument Street, is marking its rebirth from that disaster. The Episcopal church, known as Baltimore's traditional Anglo-Catholic church, will be rededicated, celebrating an extensive renovation that has it looking better than in most of the building's 146-year history.

"It looks absolutely wonderful," said Marks, who also is headmaster emeritus of the parish school. "I wasn't there in 1852, but I can only imagine that it looked something like this."

The roof collapse brought generations of grime down with it. But even without the mishap, the years of accumulated soot and dirt had been marring altars, statues, pews, artwork and the intricate geometric-patterned tile floor.

After four years and nearly $1 million (much of it from an insurance settlement), the walnut pews have been refinished; more than 50,000 tiles have been individually taken up and cleaned; the Stations of the Cross have been cleaned and refurbished; the organ has been reconstructed; and the reredos (altar screen) in The Lady Chapel to the side of the main altar, where the reserved Eucharist is kept, has been restored.

Bonnie Bush-Schaffer, who has a background in art restoration but had never worked on a church, supervised most of the restoration. She backed into the job after striking up a conversation with a priest who formerly worked in the parish as they both waited to be served in a framing shop.

"We were in line, and he asked me if I could restore plaster walls, if I could restore a statue," she said. "I said, yes, yes, yes."

The job had its challenges.

She needed to find Victorian-era tile to replace damaged pieces. Plus, church members wanted tile in floor areas that weren't tiled.

"Finding the tiles was a miracle," Bush-Schaffer said.

She called historical societies around the country, and eventually met a tile expert at a restoration conference in Atlanta. With his help, she located the company in England that made the tiles when the floor was laid. The company had gone out of business but was resurrected in the mid-1970s by family members of the founders.

The restoration gives a fresh look to a church that has been at the center of Baltimore's architectural and religious history. The church was founded in 1850, and when it was dedicated two years later, the headline in a Sun article described it as "An Elegant Church," the city's first brownstone church and the first church built of stone.

Grace Church merged with nearby St. Peter's in 1912. In December 1919, the rector, the Rev. H. P. Almon Abbott, invited James Moore Hickson, an English layman from Boston, to conduct a Healing Mission. "A lot of eyebrows were raised," Marks said.

Nowadays, the idea of spirituality contributing to physical healing doesn't seem nearly so radical. The Healing Mission continues to this day, at noon every Tuesday.

bTC In 1924, the church established a mission to serve Baltimore's Chinese immigrants. To this day, about a third of the members of the parish are of Chinese descent.

"Theologically, we're slightly to the right of the rest of the diocese and slightly to the left socially," said the Rev. Frederick S. Thomas, rector of Grace & St. Peter's.

The liturgy is High Church: the sacrament of the Eucharist is a focus, with a sung High Mass every Sunday. "We use traditional English, meaning Elizabethan English," Thomas said.

And the parish disagrees with other church innovations. "We're not really sure women can be ordained to the episcopate or priesthood," he said.

On the other hand, in the social arena, the parish and its school have always been integrated, dating to when other Baltimore religious institutions maintained segregation; and the congregation has remained diverse.

The school's tuition -- $5,970 for preschool and kindergarten, and $6,235 for grades one through five -- is much less than other institutions for private education.

"We're doing a lot of things other people give lip service to," Thomas said.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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