Envisioning new life for an old sanctuary

History: A 115-year-old Ellicott City landmark could soon have a new lease on life as a museum.

January 14, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

After 115 years as the home of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the pretty Ellicott City building perched on a hill is more a tribulation than a blessing.

Its aging interior is too small, and the leaky spots, outdated bathrooms and steep steps keep potential new members away, leaders say.

The 61-member congregation - which last year was renamed New Zion Center of Hope - decided last month to move to a more modern building in Baltimore County this year. But church leaders are hoping to transform their ancestral building on Main Street into a different kind of sanctuary.

They envision the two-story structure as a museum, with artifacts of African-American worship and information about the fight for black equality.

"We want to preserve it ... as a landmark of the African-American struggle in Maryland," said the Rev. John P. Carter, senior pastor at New Zion. "It will be a place of learning and lessons."

Visitors, he said, "would learn the power of unity and community organization, and they would learn that a struggle is sustainable if people work together."

He also hopes to start a training program there to link Baltimore-area residents who need jobs with Howard County businesses that need employees.

The building requires at least $500,000 in renovations, Carter estimates. But he thinks the features that make it a problematic site for a church - steep steps, limited space - won't be as troublesome for a small museum that caters to chil- dren.

State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, who met with church members last month to hear their plan, thinks it has "exciting potential." The Howard County Republican said it would dovetail well with plans to rehabilitate the Ellicott City Colored School, up the road from the church.

Nikki DeJesus Smith, chief executive officer of the Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in about three years in Baltimore, said few museums in the state focus on the history of black churches.

Yet it is an important subject, she said.

"The church is such a pivotal place in African-American history," she said. "The church was, and still is, not only a place of worship but a gathering place."

Although the name is still young, New Zion's congregation has plenty of history to share.

The church was founded in 1874, nine years after the end of the Civil War. Faced with racial segregation and with no place of its own, the congregation worshiped in the homes of members. About 1885, the church moved into the Main Street building that would serve them through revivals, services, weddings and funerals in three centuries.

The white-and-green church stands above the houses across the street, perched on what members call "Mount Zion's Hill." The second-floor sanctuary inside is neat and well-kept, with 18 pews, a tiny organ and a banner proclaiming members' mission: "Planting Seeds of Hope."

Sophia Pollock, who turns 82 on Wednesday, was christened in the church. Her grandparents were among the first members. But she sees the benefits of relocating.

"If your house gets outdated, you find another one," said Pollock, a Catonsville resident who was born in Ellicott City. "It's our church, regardless of where it is."

The congregation will be moving about seven miles away to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church on Johnnycake Road in Catonsville. New Zion will share the building with the established congregation. The date of the move hasn't been set.

About half of New Zion's members live in Baltimore County, Carter said.

"We need to move to a place where our ministries can grow," he added. "We believe there's more fertile ground in the location we're heading."

Not everyone wanted to move. Some voted against the plan last month, unhappy at the idea of leaving the church building in which they had spent so much of their lives.

Some in the community were saddened by the news, too.

"I would love to see their congregation stay here," said Wylene S. Burch, director of the Howard County Center of African-American Culture in Columbia.

She estimates the county has 16 African-American churches in century-old buildings, and she doesn't want any to leave. "That's our history," she said.

New Zion members feel strongly about their building, too, Carter said. That's why they intend to remain closely linked to it.

"I feel great about the whole project," he said. "It's an exciting opportunity for a small church like this. ... I think it's the best thing that's happened to the church - well, since the beginning."

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