A rock of ages rolls on

Milestone: St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore County has a proud past. But as the congregation marks 250 years, it's more excited about its future.

September 15, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

It stands stalwart among the golden cornfields and verdant pastures in the horse country of northern Baltimore County, a church steeped in history and gazing toward the future.

St. James Episcopal Church has survived the birth of the nation, the turmoil of the Civil War and the poor fortunes of an outpost chapel. Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried in the church cemetery. And George Washington is thought to have gazed at the pastoral sanctuary while eating breakfast at a hostelry across the road.

Over the years, the one-time frontier mission of a long-gone Harford County parish in Joppa has grown into a dynamic spiritual hub in affluent My Lady's Manor. As the church celebrates its founding in 1750 with 250th anniversary activities and other events this year, St. James is positioning itself for continued growth.

"History is important. It is a renewal of 250 years of faithful people praying and praising God," says the Rev. Heyward H. Macdonald, rector of St. James. "But our past is small compared to the future."

On Sunday, suffragan Bishop John L. Rabb of the Maryland diocese will reconsecrate St. James in an ancient ceremony called Asperges. Using palm branches, he will sprinkle holy water over the surroundings and the congregation to symbolize baptism, or the renewed spirit of the church.

"It is a very important thing to do, recommitting ourselves to telling the story," Rabb says of the church's anniversary. "It's not living in the past. Christian memory is knowing your story and how God has been calling and using us."

Rabb said St. James, one of the oldest churches in continuous use in the diocese, has grown and expanded remarkably. "It is a very, very vital congregation," he says. "It was a quiet church in horse country. Now it is a thriving, booming and exciting parish."

In recent years, membership has more than doubled, from about 500 parishioners in 1990 to 1,200 active members, who come from as far as Homeland in Baltimore and Stewartstown, Pa.

The ministry also has moved beyond the red-brick walls of the historic church to helping the needy in surrounding areas and in other countries, and to making an increased commitment to children.

Besides an active Sunday school program, the parish school, St. James Academy, has gone through a multimillion-dollar expansion to create a modern learning environment for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"They work very hard at the school to make improvements," says Joshua Hutchins Cockey, 85, a lifelong St. James Church member. "It gives people more confidence in the children and the future."

Cockey, on whose ancestors' land the church and other buildings were built, compiled a bound history of St. James for the 250th celebration.

He tells the story of the Chapel of Ease, as St. James was called in the beginning. It was built for back-country folks, who otherwise had to travel to the mother church, St. John's, in Joppa.

At the time, Joppa was a thriving seaport. But as silt filled the harbor and Baltimore grew, the bustling town died, and St. John's closed. St. James continued as a spiritual and community center.

During Colonial days, congregants would share baskets of food after church, knowing they might not see each other until the next service. They also gathered at the foot of the hill atop which the church sits, at a place called Slade's Tavern, where Washington ate during the Revolutionary War.

Records indicate that the church was used as an arsenal in 1776. Several soldiers are said to be buried beneath the small, unmarked stones next to the church.

Not long after the church was built, it needed to be enlarged. Years later, a bell tower was constructed, using bricks from the first St. James Academy, which was dismantled in 1884.

In his dedication, Cockey, who relied on a previous history of the church and church bulletins for his book, called St. James in My Lady's Manor, "a place favored by God."

Even though the postal address is Monkton, residents refer to the area reverently as My Lady's Manor. The name came about after Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, gave his fourth wife, Margaret Charlton, a gift of 10,000 acres. The property was confiscated by Maryland during the Revolutionary War and divided into parcels that were put up for sale in 1782.

The church's fortunes were enhanced in the 1930s when many of the old family homes on My Lady's Manor were purchased by wealthy New Yorkers interested in fox hunting, Cockey writes. The newcomers generously supported the church.

They also established a Thanksgiving tradition, in which members of the local hunt club would attend services at St. James and begin a fox hunt from the property.

In 1950, another tradition was established - the blessing of the hunt by the church rector. Today, the practice continues, although in a more low-key fashion than years past, when tailgate parties overshadowed the spiritual side of the event.

After a recent Sunday service, Cockey and his wife, Lovisah, 84, greeted parishioners. The couple, whose ancestors contributed land and service to the parish, were married there 60 years ago.

Today, they watch contentedly as younger members infuse new energy into the church. Their ancestors' vision for St. James will continue, Joshua Cockey says.

"It looks as though it will remain viable for a long time."

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