A century of 'good fellowship' Episcopal club marks centennial with dinner tonight

October 24, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In October 1898, a group of 70 Episcopalian laymen gathered at the suggestion of their bishop at Baltimore's Rennert Hotel to form an organization that, according to its bylaws, was "to cultivate a better acquaintance among the churchmen of the Diocese of Maryland."

Tonight, the Churchman's Club of the Diocese of Maryland will meet for its 100th-anniversary celebration.

The gala at the Cathedral of the Incarnation will feature the Rt. Rev. John L. Rabb, the recently consecrated bishop suffragan, as the featured speaker.

The Churchman's Club, once considered a society for the upper crust, now reflects the diversity of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

One-third of its members are women. There is significant participation by blacks.

Also, the churchmen are led by a woman, Anne-Steuart Palmer, a Roland Park artist who is the organization's first female president.

"It's gone from being an elitist group of men in tails to a very 20th-century, new-millennium kind of group," said Palmer, who attends St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park.

Palmer, 44, said her election as president "speaks volumes, because it's a clear message that the Churchman's Club is moving forward. It shows adaptability to our changing membership."

The Churchman's Club had its genesis at the Maryland Episcopal diocesan convention of 1897, when Maryland Bishop William Paret suggested that a church club be formed in Baltimore similar to those in Boston and New York.

Diocesan archivist F. Garner Ranney, who has prepared a dramatic reading of the club's history for presentation tonight, noted the bitter struggles among Baltimore's Episcopalians during those early years. The clashes were between those who favored High Church, which retains much of the ritual of the Roman Catholics, and Low Church, which puts less emphasis on ritual and has a more evangelical focus.

In addition, each parish tended to keep to itself. The Churchman's Club was to be formed, in the word of Paret, to counter this "excessive parochialism."

After the first organizational meeting in October 1898, the first regular dinner was held Dec. 8 at the grand Rennert Hotel, with 150 men in attendance.

"The menu, while not varied, was substantial, and the utmost good fellowship prevailed," The Sun reported. "No wines were served."

The next year's banquet, in November 1899, was one of the most memorable. It was held at Music Hall, an opera house on Howard Street. The banquet room was below the stage, where a production of "Faust" was being performed.

"While the dinner was being served, the familiar airs of 'Faust' could be heard plainly by the banqueters," The Sun reported.

"When the speechmaking began, the faces of sundry chorus girls could be seen peeping over the transoms, interfering somewhat with the close attention which the remarks of the speakers merited," the article said. " 'It is too bad that this opera was on tonight,' said one member of the club. 'It didn't add greatly to the wonted quiet and dignity of the gathering.' "

In 1946, the Churchman's Club welcomed one of its most eminent speakers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Francis Fisher. A delegation of 65 men, including the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore, was on hand at Mount Royal Station to greet him.

At its height, the Churchman's Club was one of the most important social clubs in the city. As society changed, so did the club. It began admitting blacks and women in the early 1970s.

"In its heyday, when all the churches were in their glory, there were as many as 750 members," Palmer said. "In more recent times, we have fallen back because our membership has died off."

But it never fell below the original membership of 70.

Membership is building again and approaching 100 people representing 17 churches, Palmer said.

The fancy dinners have moved from hotels such as the Belvedere to the parishes of the club's members, partly to be more economical and partly to be closer to parish life.

The purpose of the Churchman's Club -- which charges dues of $60 a year, covering two dinners -- remains drawing together members of parishes.

The club "builds a social rapport among people," Palmer said. "And they go on to do other work in the diocese."

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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