Vows of love, homage to past

Ceremony: Couple marry in the church founded by the bride's ancestor, a free black man, in 1833.

May 14, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Lisa Marie Hopkins added a piece to her family's history yesterday.

She married her sweetheart, James Lawrence Tanner, at The Colored Methodist Protestant St. John's Chapel of Baltimore County in Ruxton. Hopkins, 34, is a descendant of James Aquilla Scott, a free black man who built the church in 1833.

Friends and family said yesterday was as much a celebration of heritage as it was of love.

"It gives you such a proud feeling because we have such a rich history in this family," said Gai Young, Hopkins' maternal aunt. "It's such a wonderful feeling. You couldn't buy it."

The gray wooden chapel with green shutters was decorated with white satin bows and wildflowers and was a part of the 63rd annual Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage, which wound its way through Ruxton yesterday.

Nell Stanley, chairwoman of the pilgrimage, said proceeds from yesterday's tour of 10 private homes in Ruxton will go toward renovation of the chapel.

"Today honors a determination, a sense of history and a family tradition that you don't often see," said Stanley, whose organization donated flowers for the wedding. "Lisa and James are two of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and the church is beautiful."

Tobias Scott was a slave in the early 19th century when he saved his master's life and was granted his freedom and a plot of land on what is now Bellona Avenue. Originally constructed as a log cabin by one of Scott's children in 1833, it served as a house of worship and burial grounds for the local black community until it was destroyed by fire in 1876. It was rebuilt in 1888.

Declining membership forced the church to close in the early 1960s, but it was restored in the 1980s and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hopkins, a fifth-generation descendant of Tobias Scott, said there was no debate about where she and her 35-year-old fiance would tie the knot.

"I just like to go there and sit or go out and read the headstones," Hopkins said. "It just feels like home."

The couple met through a mutual friend two years ago, and Hopkins said the chapel fit the mood she and Tanner wanted.

"We wanted something that was personal, quiet and peaceful," Hopkins said. "If you sit in the church long enough, it's almost like you are back in time."

Her mother, Loretta Hopkins, echoed her daughter's feelings about the chapel.

"When you walk in there, you can smell the history," she said. "It's old and heartwarming."

With electric fans to combat the heat as one of the few nods to modern times, guests streamed into the tiny chapel to take their places on wooden pews. A 19th-century Bible with records of weddings from long ago rested on the pulpit, and a slight breeze outside the chapel walls stirred the grass around gravestones, which mark the passage of time in the Scott family.

Guest Beverly Reid sat near family photos of various Scott ancestors that decorate the wall near an old Estey organ. Reid, a family friend, said the chapel helps "the legacy live on in a structure."

"A lot of families have really lost their sense of connectedness," she said. "When you can say you belong to a family, that builds your character."

Young, Hopkins' aunt, said her family has handed down family stories and has always taken pride in knowing where they came from.

"We were never taught to feel less than who we were because our ancestors always tried," Young said. "We know how much our family accomplished over the years."

As a bridesmaid sang "The Wind Beneath My Wings," Hopkins floated down the aisle in her pearl-encrusted, ivory gown to grasp Tanner's hands. The Rev. Wayne Cockrull joked about the heat even as he prompted the couple to remember their vows.

"Why are you sweating, James?" Cockrull asked as guests laughed.

After a service in which Cockrull outlined the importance of commitment and communication, the guests stepped into the sunshine to witness the jumping of the broom. The ritual is an African-American tradition dating from slavery that symbolizes a couple "jumping" into the seat of matrimony. Hopkins wanted it included in her ceremony to pay homage to her ancestors.

"I'm married, I'm married," Hopkins repeated over and over to herself as she wiped her tears. She hiked up her gown before she and her husband leaped over the straw broom decorated with purple and white flowers.

And with that, Mr. and Mrs. Tanner stepped into a new chapter of history.

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