Church grows while honoring a long history

Tradition: Despite the changes in the community around it, Trinity Episcopal Church has remained a haven for its members.

May 02, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Almost 150 years ago, a few Howard County farm families built a plain, white clapboard church on Washington Boulevard to spare themselves the five-mile ride to churches in Guilford and Elkridge.

Farms no longer surround the church. Its nearest neighbors are an adult video store, a waste recycling center, a junkyard and a flea market. Tractor-trailers rumble by on U.S. 1, and the roar of airplanes drowns out the sermon.

But Trinity Episcopal Church in Waterloo has survived the changes and is steadily growing. This year, the church will break ground on a Sunday school building -- its first new structure since 1909.

"We are trying to move from maintenance to mission," said the Rev. John "Skip" Steiner IV, Trinity's minister.

From 75 to 100 families attend services at Trinity on the Pike, as the church calls itself. Today, convenience is no longer much of a consideration for members, who come from as far away as Severn, Laurel and Catonsville. And the church is no longer a white clapboard building.

Cedar side shingles and an octagonal stone chancel added a century ago put the church in sharp contrast with surrounding brick and metal buildings. In 1974, the church was put on the National Register of Historic Places for its Gothic revival style.

"I wasn't sure what it was," said Nancy Benson, who recalls first driving by Trinity in the early 1980s. "It looked like part of a castle."

Then Benson's hairdresser told her of a church she had discovered and encouraged her to attend services with her. The church turned out to be Trinity.

"It was exactly what I was looking for," Benson said. "I wanted someplace where I could go and worship, and I didn't want to be lost."

Although its membership is growing, Trinity is not a church where worshipers can remain anonymous, Steiner said.

"If you come here, you can't hide," he said. "Sunday morning I can see who is there and who is not there."

It is not the kind of church where worshipers can just sit in the pews Sundays. Members frequently have more than one job to do in the church.

Sara Dolan joined Trinity in August and soon became a member of the choir and an assistant youth minister.

"You can't come in here without people talking to you," she said.

During the service Steiner, the acolyte and choir members greet each person in the sanctuary, wishing them peace and occasionally pausing to exchange pleasantries. The fellowship continues after the service over coffee and pastries in the parish hall.

"The sense of belonging everyone feels is what makes the church unique," said Doris Berger Moore, whose great-grandfather was the first rector of the church.

Steiner, who lives in the rectory behind the church, says the neighborhood is fairly quiet, considering the industry that surrounds his home. But Trinity's surroundings are far from the upscale Ruxton community in Baltimore County where he served as assistant minister at Church of the Good Shepherd.

He left there because he wanted to be in charge of his own congregation. He was looking for a small church in the Baltimore area when he found Trinity. "This one felt right," he said.

Members say they hardly notice Trinity's less-than-bucolic surroundings. If anything, they are inspired by the need they see in a strip troubled by prostitution and drug use.

Thirty years ago, the changing neighborhood created a rift in the church.

Episcopal leaders inside and outside of Trinity wanted to move the church to a more desirable location. Other members, including many whose families had attended services on the pike for generations, opposed the move. In 1973, the church split. By some accounts, about half of Trinity's families left for other churches.

"The people that remained saw themselves as the victors, but they struggled to survive," Steiner said.

Only recently, with membership growing and the plans for a building expansion, has the church fully recovered from the division.

Members credit Steiner with helping to bring about the revival and say he reaches out to young families, encouraging children to attend and participate in the services.

Trinity offers two Sunday morning services, church school and Thursday evening prayer service.

Inside the sanctuary, the seedy sites of U.S. 1 seem far away. Purple, pink and gold light filters through the stained-glass windows and shines on the cream-colored walls. A gold cross and candelabra adorn the altar. The worshipers sitting in the wooden pews are old and young. Some wear jeans and T-shirts, while others wear suits and dresses.

"In the past few years, people are realizing we really are here," Steiner said. "We have tried to work hard in making ourselves known in the community."

The church operates a thrift shop in Pfeiffer Corner and participates in community projects, including donating Thanksgiving food baskets to the poor, fixing up houses for needy residents, sponsoring a Cub Scout troop and offering flu shots in the parish hall.

When its new building is complete, Trinity plans to offer its parish hall for more community functions.

"It's on the boulevard where we are needed," said Sarah Shannon of Jessup, who has been a member of Trinity for decades. "We are a little garden of Eden."

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