Steeples gleam in remembrance

Honor: Illuminated spires of Maryland towns' churches shine as memorials to individuals and their dreams.

January 06, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

As she drives through the streets of Westminster after dark, Ruth Bair speaks to a handful of church steeples bathed in light.

"Hello, Marty," she calls out, passing the red-brick medieval-style tower of St. Paul's United Church of Christ on Bond Street.

"Hi, Uncle John," Bair says, driving by the Georgian Colonial Baker Memorial Chapel at Western Maryland College.

"Hello, Phyllis. Hello, Pastor Whitson," she says, passing the petite white steeple atop the sprawling First United Presbyterian Church complex on Washington Road and Grace Lutheran Church's slim red-brick tower on Carroll Street.

In this Carroll County city with the flavor of a New England village, church steeples are more than bricks and mortar, more than wood and white paint. They're monuments to people like Martha "Marty" Hollinger, a Westminster native who died of emphysema in 1996 and to the Rev. L. Stanley Whitson, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, who celebrated 50 years as an ordained minister in 1998. Four of the city's steeples are illuminated in someone's honor.

"Light is symbolic," says Bair, 64, who was born and raised in Westminster. "We are attracted to the Chrysler Building, to the Inner Harbor. When we see something lit, it draws our attention. This is a nice way to honor people."

Communities across Maryland and the country have been illuminating their steeples for years.

A gift to the city

Five of Frederick's "clustered spires" were lit in 1961 at the bequest of John T. King Jr. and his wife. It was the Baltimore couple's Christmas gift to the city.

In Cumberland, 14 of the city's steeples - from the white porcelain tower at St. Paul's Lutheran Church to the Allegany County Courthouse's red brick spire - have been illuminated since 1995 as part of a community effort led by downtown manager Ed Mullaney.

"We're promoting our civic pride," Mullaney says. "Everyone can look out their doorstep and see an illuminated church steeple."

In Cumberland, only the steeple at Trinity Lutheran Church is lit in honor of someone, Mullaney says.

Trinity Lutheran's pastor, the Rev. Stephen Sweyko, says, "We do it to draw our attention to our congregation. Here, we are preaching the Gospel."

In Westminster, lighting steeples is more of a personal expression.

For Westminster resident Sally Glover, whose late father, John Wesley Manspeaker, was memorialized in October with the illumination of the Western Maryland College chapel, lighting the steeple was a way to honor who her father was and what was important to him.

The college was a special place for Manspeaker, who was a graduate in the Class of 1936, a former neighbor who spent thousands of hours golfing on the college's hillside nine-hole golf course. A public school teacher and administrator for 34 years, Manspeaker died in August 1999, five days short of his 92nd birthday.

Lights of the city

Glover, whose Colonial-style home is perched on a ridge overlooking the city, is accustomed to seeing all of the city's lights - from the old firehouse's tower on Main Street to City Hall to the Green Street traffic signal - from the windows of her dining room and enclosed porch.

"They're so pretty," says Glover, 58, who retired from Carroll County Hospital this past summer.

When Bair, Glover's first cousin, suggested to the family that it use the $4,500 in memorial donations made to the college in Manspeaker's memory to light the steeple, Glover and her stepmother, Patricia K. Manspeaker, knew that it was the right thing to do.

"It's an inspirational kind of memorial," says Patricia Manspeaker, 62, who lives in St. Michaels.

The first time she saw Baker Memorial Chapel's steeple glowing white on the horizon in honor of her father, Glover felt goose bumps.

"This is an illumination of his spirit as well as the chapel," she says, gazing at the lights against the navy midwinter sky. "This makes me feel surrounded by my father's spirit."

The bell tower or steeple dates to early Christianity, according to architectural historian Phoebe Stanton. Bells were installed in towers of churches so their sound would carry. These towers also provided a view of the countryside and could help villagers protect themselves from intruders.

However, steeples aren't just architectural; they're symbolic, says the Rev. Walter Fogarty, pastor of the historic Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick. "I think there's this whole idea that this spire is pointing toward heaven."

The practice of illuminating steeples in Westminster started about a decade ago when Bob Jones lighted the spire at First United Presbyterian Church in memory of his first wife, Phyllis, who died of a virus in 1990 at the age of 59.

Phyllis Jones was a special-duty nurse whose warmth and compassion were legendary among her family and friends. She was devoted to her church. Bob Jones' donation to the church in her name helped build and light the steeple added to the structure in 1992.

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