Gary Memorial United Methodist Church has survived a devastating flood and the closing of the mill town that once surrounded it. Today, visiting the stone church near Ellicott City is like taking a step back in time.
"It's like a Norman Rockwell painting in there," said Kathryn Higham, who was active in the church until moving with her family to Bethesda. "It's a church with a wonderful sense of community. They do a Christmas Eve candlelight service in that sweet little church that's to die for. It's storybook."
Isolated at the end of Daniels Road at the edge of Patapsco Valley State Park, Gary Memorial, the last vestige of a once thriving community, does have a fairytale quality. However, the American history woven into Gary Memorial is not all storybook. The church was built in what was then Alberton in 1879 by James A. Gary, whose family owned the mill and town.
In 1940, C.R. Daniels Inc. bought the mill town, which suffered badly during the Depression, and changed its name to Daniels. In 1968, C.R. Daniels Inc. decided to demolish all the houses in the town, effectively displacing the community. Most of what was left of the town - a few mill buildings, a store, a post office and a Pentecostal church - was severely damaged or destroyed when Hurricane Agnes flooded the area in 1972. Only Gary Memorial was left unscathed.
Through it all, the church and congregation prevailed.
A sense of community - and history - was evident Palm Sunday as the church's stained-glass windows were dedicated to families that sponsored their restoration.
Betty Bridner dedicated a window to her parents, Harold and Ozella Nazelrod, describing them as "ordinary people who worked very hard" but "liked to have a good time."
Vicki Goodman dedicated a window to her father, Donald S. Brown, to represent his "simple but colorful life" and "strong work ethic." Others echoed similar sentiments about their parents, all of whom had long histories with the church.
"Windows are a wonderful way to commemorate people," said the Rev. Luther Starnes. "It's significant to have the windows dedicated close to the place where the people sat when they were here."
New life in the church was evident in the noise of children attending the service in the small, simple sanctuary. Their liveliness underscored what Starnes characterizes as the "informal nature" of the church. "I don't feel I've done my job until I've gotten everyone to laugh four or five times," he said.
After the Palm Sunday service, the children engaged in the Easter egg hunt on the church grounds. Church members look forward to the traditional Easter sunrise service Sunday, with an Easter breakfast.
"It's a great breakfast. We're not talking continental here," Starnes said. "We're talking eggs, ham, pancake, sausage - you name it." After the sunrise service and breakfast will be the 11 a.m. Easter service.
"It's a fun place to be. I like the people," said Starnes, who celebrates his 13th anniversary as pastor in September. "I've never had a pastorate this long. To be this long in a church and they haven't gotten tired of me, and I haven't gotten tired of them ... maybe it's because so many of them were part of the town and have the spirit of one for all and all for one."
Howard County Executive James N. Robey, who grew up in Daniels, has been a member of Gary Memorial for about 50 years. "Back in those days," he said, "everyone who attended the church lived in the town. This wasn't just a church ... it was a social center."
When Starnes took over 13 years ago, "the church was at a low ebb. There was talk of closing the church," Starnes said. Recently, however, its fortunes have been changing.
Walt Disney Co. chose Gary Memorial as a location for the movie "Tuck Everlasting" after searching for an isolated stone church with a cemetery and will be filming there at the end of next month and into early June. And despite the deaths in recent years of longtime members, "this is a tremendously active church," Starnes said.
As the former residents of Daniels inevitably die, Gary Memorial is looking for new members. "The congregation has gotten younger," Starnes said. "There is a lot of development here. ... and I've taken in some people from hiking or kayaking on the river who see us. We want people to know we're here. It would be wonderful to grow, though it could change the nature of us. But the church will surely survive."
Gary Memorial Church
Denomination: United Methodist
Leadership: the Rev. Luther Starnes, pastor
Size: 180 members
Location: Daniels Road, Ellicott City
Date founded: 1879
Worship services: 11 a.m. Sundays
Children's program: Sunday school for all ages, 9:30 a.m.