Faith in the future

Chapel: A historic Pikesville church sees opportunity in a rapidly changing community.

March 06, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Some of the tombstones outside Stone Chapel United Methodist Church north of Pikesville mark deaths from the 1820s; others are worn so thin and flat by generations of wind and rain that they are no more than brittle, moss-covered fingers of slate, their etchings long since faded away.

For nearly 225 years, one of Maryland's oldest Methodist congregations has worshiped on this spot. Tucked in the middle of Alto Dale farm, it harks back to the roots of the denomination and of Baltimore County. The congregation first met in 1772 in the home of Joshua Owings, whose family later lent its name to the town to the north. Francis Asbury, one of the most important founding ministers of American Methodism, frequented its pulpit, and the Goucher family -- for whom the college is named -- long owned the farm that provided the chapel with its pastoral setting as well as many of its congregants.

That setting did not fade nearly so gradually as the names on the tombstones. About three years ago, Alto Dale farm became Avalon Estate Homes, clusters of beige townhouses and condominiums that sell for $200,000 or more. Avalon homes bound the church on three sides, and Grey Rock condominiums complete the circle to the south.

The Avalon homes are almost close enough to the church that the owners could stand on their decks and throw rice at weddings.

Dorothy Langrehr, 85, is the church's historian. Her father was a manager at Alto Dale farm, and her parents first took her to Stone Chapel and dropped her off at Sunday school when she was 2 or 3. She wasn't happy when construction began.

"To me, it was heartbreaking," she said. "I had visions of sometime having a church school down where the old parsonage is now, and that didn't work out."

But under the guidance of a young, ambitious new minister, congregants are starting to see a broader perspective. Yes, the condo owners are close enough to throw rice at weddings, but they don't, because there are no weddings at Stone Chapel, and haven't been for years.

And although Langrehr's dining room table sported a dozen Valentine's Day roses last month from a youthful (76-year-old) admirer, neither she nor the rest of the congregation -- with an average age somewhere over 60 -- is likely to change that.

In the exploding residential population around Stone Chapel, pastor Steve Humphrey, 30, sees potential. It's odd, he acknowledges, to have the backs of condos so close to the church. After all, in the natural order of things, homes cluster around churches and make them the center of the community instead of turning their backs on them. But the effect is to make the chapel a hidden treasure, and that has great appeal, he said.

"I know people hated to see the farmland go, but we've got the best of both worlds," Humphrey said. "It's like you go into a time capsule. You go down the road and, boom -- you're in a different world. But at the same time, it's right there next to everything."

Humphrey is working on a comprehensive plan for the church to get members out into the community more and to modernize services a bit. The goal is to reconnect the church with the people who live around it.

A big part of the problem, Langrehr said, is that as people who grew up around the church got married and left home, they couldn't afford to live in the area. What had been farmland became high-priced suburbs. People moved away, and those who replaced them had no ties to the community or to the church.

The young professionals moving in are great targets for membership, Humphrey said. He said he thinks that after years of declining interest in religion, people his age are looking to get God back in their lives. Stone Chapel, with its fusion of Greek Revival and American Meetinghouse design, is just the place for people trying to reconnect with tradition, he said.

"I think especially for Generation X, because it's got that sort of coffeehouse feel to it," Humphrey said. "It's got very old, old furniture and patterned Victorian rugs that are kind of worn around the edges, and it's got an ancient feel to it."

So far, the church hasn't been overrun with young members, but curious condo owners do wander in from time to time.

Stewart Frost, who lives in the Grey Rock condos with his wife, Mary Welsh, stumbled onto Stone Chapel during one of his walks around the neighborhood. The couple had been thinking about finding a church, and the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt put them in a reflective mood, so a few minutes before 11 a.m. on the last Sunday in February, they took seats by the aisle in Stone Chapel.

By the time Humphrey walked in, the visitors had shaken hands with half the congregation. By the time the service was over, they'd been hugged by the other half.

In spite of his gray beard, John Wagner, 56, is known as one of the young members of the congregation. About a year ago, after Wagner and his family moved to the Grey Rock condos, his daughter Stephanie, now 22, wanted to find a church to attend.

One Sunday they decided to go to St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, another historic congregation in the area, but they arrived too late. Then they remembered seeing Stone Chapel, around the corner.

"We walked in and sat down and were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home," John Wagner said. "It just seemed like a natural place to be."

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