Drivers on Frederick Road in Ellicott City can't help but notice the large campus of granite buildings near the intersection at St. John's Lane. It's the home of St. John's Episcopal Church, Howard County's largest of that denomination.
St. John's Episcopal Church originated many Ellicott City traditions, from the antiques shows in the fall, to lighting luminarias on Christmas Eve and presenting a striking living creche during Christmas week.
Vacant until the creche opens Christmas Eve, the stable waits for the Holy Family - as interpreted by parishioners - to take up residence. Every night, two shifts of congregants will represent Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. One evening, teen-agers will fill the stable. The next, short shepherds and their parents will appear. A doll will represent the baby Jesus.
"On the first Sunday of Advent, we post a sign-up sheet to fill the creche with church members," said Leonora Hoenes, who has been involved with the creche for 23 years. "We encourage families and friends to sign up together. Sitting in the creche is also a good way to get to know other members of this large church," she said.
"We tell people to move around and talk - to act like a family," Hoenes said. "But no eating and drinking - and no cell phones."
Farm animals also help to staff the stable. Although Jezebel the donkey, previously a regular, has died, the Bell family in Cooksville sends sheep and the McCoy family of western Howard sends goats.
"The baby goats like to nibble on baby Jesus' hair, so we always try to bring him in each evening," Hoenes said with a laugh because the animals spend the week within a fenced enclosure encircling the stable.
At 3:30 p.m. Monday, the creche comes to life in time for Christmas Eve services and runs until the final hymn of the last service at 10:30 p.m. St. John's congregants will then present the creche from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. each day until Dec. 31.
On Frederick Road, automobiles slow down as drivers realize that the creche figures are life-size and moving.
"Before we go out to the stable each night, we read the Christmas story in the Bible," Hoenes said, "and then we retell it to people who have pulled their cars over and walked up close. The shepherds will walk the sheep over to the fence so that children can pet them.
"We encourage a reverent attitude to reflect the event. Everybody who takes the time to participate in the creche gains something," she said.
St. John's Episcopal Church was established by an old Howard County family, the Dorseys, in 1822. Caleb and Elizabeth Dorsey donated a piece of their farm for "the White Church," as it was then called, which accommodated 200 worshippers with a gallery for their servants. About 40 years later, the current granite structure was built with a solid stone spire and arched belfry.
In 1871, Sallie Elizabeth Dorsey donated 1 1/2 acres to be used as a cemetery. Now spanning 20 acres, St. John's Cemetery holds the remains of prominent Howard County citizens such as Maryland Gov. Thomas W. Ligon, a longtime parishioner of the church.
Part of the longevity and success of St. John's Church is its emphasis on outreach.
"Our sense is that we are here for more than just ourselves," said the Rev. Doris Johnson, an associate rector. "Part of our mission statement is to bring people closer to God and to each other."
The congregation expresses this philosophy in concrete ways. The church is expanding the parish school from a preschool to a private school that will educate children up to grade five. The school has hired Anna Puma as headmistress and is accepting applications for fall 2002.
St. John's Church has supported St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, a once-fledgling congregation in Cooksville, which is now fully established.
Christian education is also thriving with a popular women's Bible study that "gathers women from ages 25 to 75," says Johnson, who teaches the class. "A new Mother's Ministry to nurture women who are at home with children is also growing and claiming its place in the parish."
Johnson said, "The people at St. John's church are really seeking God in their very active lives."
St. John's Episcopal Church
Leadership: rector, the Rev. William Shiflet Jr.; associate rector, the Rev. Doris Johnson; assistant rector, the Rev. Mary Jayne Ledgerwood; deacon, Mimi Mathews.
Size: 2,600 members
Location: 9120 Frederick Road, Ellicott City
Year founded: 1822
Worship services: 7:45 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite I; 9 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite II service in the church and Parish Folk Service in auditorium; 10:15 a.m. Christian Education for Children and Adults; 11:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist Rite II, with full choir. At 7 a.m. Thursdays, there is a Holy Eucharist in the Chapel, Parish Life Center.
Children's program: Nursery services available from 8:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sundays.