An era passes for old church

Legacy: Members of Ames United Methodist, Bel Air's oldest black congregation, open the cornerstone of the building, which is being replaced with a new sanctuary.

September 14, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

On the day that workers began to take down their church, Ames United Methodist Church parishioners came to see what they could learn about the people who built the parish up 115 years ago.

About two dozen members of Bel Air's oldest African-American congregation gathered yesterday morning near the busy intersection of U.S. 1 and Route 924 to watch as the 1886 church's cornerstone was removed. Inside the stone might be messages, documents, clues to the founding members, who first worshiped in Bel Air in an old warehouse.

Sister Mazie Taylor, Brother Clarence White, the Rev. Eric King and others leaned in for a closer look as John Richardson of Jarrettsville Builders chipped out the cornerstone. They were in for a surprise.

The sunny end-of-summer morning was already emotional. The building some have called a spiritual home for more than 50 years is being torn down to make way for a $1.1 million sanctuary. And the razing of one building couldn't help but remind of the destruction of two others, in New York, two days before.

"Up until Tuesday, it was very exciting," said White, who has handled much of the project logistics. "That kind of puts it in perspective."

Nearby, holes where multicolored glass windows once stood caught the morning breeze. Members chose bricks from a pile to take home. And they made one last round inside the wood-and-shingle-sided building, finding one more book, one more memento.

The building remaining yesterday offered no hint of the sanctuary where eight choirs of children, adults and musicians raised songs to the rafters. Or of the old days, when a curtain would be drawn to make space for Sunday school.

Taylor, a spry 81, joined Ames in 1954 and remembers those days fondly, as well as celebrations and services. "Everything went on in the black church," she said. "School programs, graduations, community meetings. It was the only place people could go to meet. We still have that fellowship."

She was a schoolteacher for many years, and taught scores of Ames' children in Sunday school, both in the sanctuary and later in the old parsonage house next door. She drew many young mothers into the church through the Sunday school's doors, including Dorothy Presberry in 1963. Presberry - like Taylor and most members of Ames - has been on most of the church's committees and sung in the choir.

Presberry, a retired schoolteacher, had a tough time making the mental move to a new building. But being on the vision committee, the latest of three to try to orchestrate a move, helped her accept the change. "It's a wonderful feeling to know you've been a part of something that's going to grow," she said.

And the congregation is growing fast, drawing new families from the area as well as those relocating from Baltimore. King said that this year 185 people squeezed into the old church (built to hold 110 comfortably) on an average Sunday, compared with about 85 in 1998. The new building will seat 250 and have rooms for the choirs, Sunday school and community meetings.

"We want to continue to be a community church," King said, noting that homework clubs, a food pantry and other social ministries would have space to thrive.

"My aim is not to build a megachurch," he said. "My aim is to get people connected with the kingdom of God."

The connection to the old building, remembered through a favorite seat, or the color of the light streaming through the tall windows, will not fade, members said. But the move, said Evelynn Clayton, a lifelong member of Ames, was unavoidable. "We've been talking about it for years and nobody really wanted to let go of the old tradition," she said.

But then, a few years ago, an inspection of the foundation revealed extensive termite damage. "It would have taken more money to try to renovate," she said.

Ames decided to stay in Bel Air so members could still walk to services, and the church could minister to the community. By removing the parsonage house and the church, Ames will make room for a new sanctuary, which will fill most of the property and incorporate the fellowship hall built in 1981. The church is expected to be finished in late winter. In the meantime, the congregation is worshiping at Edgewood Hall at Harford Community College.

The demolition, started yesterday by Classic Construction of Aberdeen, is to take three to five days.

Clayton said she would not be there. "I'm going to be somewhere else. ... There's too many laughters and tears in that place."

Yesterday, Ahmad Smith, 5, brought laughter to what was otherwise a quiet event.

As Richardson, of Jarrettsville Builders, loosened the cornerstone, the kindergartner peeked over the fellowship hall steps to watch. What was that, he wanted to know, and could he get inside it?

"We'll put you in the new cornerstone," teased King. "They'd love to have you pop out, Ahmad."

The stone slid out, full of water. Full of dirt. Richardson tilted the stone, then moved it onto red carpet. A crumbly pile of metal came out next, a single corner intact.

"We were looking for some goodies," King said. "It was a box, that's for sure. It just didn't stand the test."

"Eeeeeuuuuwww!" Ahmad said. "A bug is on it!"

So was an inscription: J. Ayers. The stonemason? A founding member? A clue, perhaps, to their spiritual ancestors.

As people began to trickle away to jobs or school, Ruth Jackson, another 50-year member, gazed at the church and said: "You can't help from being sad. You had baptisms, Sunday school ... so much history. I'm really sad and glad, because we have to get used to change. We can't let things always stay the same."

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