Memories resurrected

Tribute: In Glen Burnie, a tiny church constructed more than 40 years ago is rescued from decay by the family of its builder.

January 07, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

On busy Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard in Glen Burnie, where cars usually zip past signs for discount shrimp and oil changes, drivers are slowing down.

What has transfixed them is the comeback of an old friend -- a small, plywood church with stained-glass windows and a steeple that stands again on its island in a little pond. In front is a sign: "Merry Christmas, Anne Arundel County, From the Gunther family."

Glen Burnie's little church at the duck pond has returned, after more than a decade of decay and neglect.

"I wanted to put that church back," said Arnold "Bunky" Gunther. "That was on my mind. It's always been there."

Gunther's father, Willie, built the original, 100-square- foot church more than 40 years ago as a memorial to his wife, Dorothy.

Today, the church also serves as a memorial to a town long gone, a time when farmers outnumbered car salesmen in Glen Burnie and rabbits roamed one-lane roads. Neighbors knew each other, even shared produce. And children tossed crumbs into the duck pond and marveled at the Lilliputian house of worship.

Melvin Kearney, a Florida resident who grew up in Harundale, reflected on those times as he photographed the church on a recent visit.

"It makes you think about the neighborhood," he said. "What it was, what it used to be."

Back then, Willie Gunther was known by those who remember him as hard-working and generous. Co-workers at the U.S. Coast Guard yard tell of a talented woodworker who followed his father into a yard job.

He always finished what he started, including the small wooden roller coaster he built for his children in the 1950s. These children talk of a dedicated father who was so generous with the strawberries and tomatoes he grew that he often gave away more than he sold. And he wouldn't let a Christmas pass without making sure neighborhood children received his homemade toys, said Mildred Martha Pillar, his sister.

"There is no end to what I thought of my brother and how good he was to that town," she said.

But Pillar also knew her brother's burdens. He was 16 when he discovered his mother, Marie, gagged and beaten to death on a pine patch near their home April 1, 1937. Though police caught the suspect the same day, Willie Gunther never forgave himself. Family members said his mother had left home that day to get young Willie new vehicle tags.

Tragedy followed him into marriage. Three of his eight children, his only daughters, died as babies. His wife, Dorothy, suffered from asthma. When she died in 1956, she was 42.

Looking for a way to channel his pain using his carpentry skills, Willie Gunther decided to build a memorial to Dorothy, a devout Christian.

For a year, he worked nights in his woodshop, sanding and painting the plywood walls. He imported the rainbow-colored glass from Belgium. The architectural renderings came from even farther; Gunther lore has it that a family friend who also was a naval engineer drew the plans in his spare time while serving aboard a submarine.

In 1961, the Gunther men -- father and five sons -- carried the church to the island. Almost immediately, his memorial found a place in the heart of Glen Burnie.

"My sister and I used to pretend there were little people in there," said Joanna Gavin, 37, who grew up in Harundale and works for Anne Arundel County. "My parents would just slow down and let us look at the ducks, and the kids would always wonder what was going on inside that little church. ... It was just sitting out there all by itself and it just looked so cute."

Maintaining the church took work, though. When Willie Gunther's health began to fail, it, too, suffered. When he died in 1991, it had fallen apart.

It looked more like a barn after a tornado than the sweet country landmark Gavin remembered. Its steeple, once grand, sagged like a wet sock. The plywood was rotten. The Belgian glass had shattered, victim to vandalism and harsh winters.

Few forgot it, though. Even the school bus driver of Willie Gunther's 16-year-old granddaughter asked about it.

Bunky Gunther, who now lives in his father's house, told neighbors he was going to restore it, but his 84-year-old Aunt Mildred wasn't sure she'd see it in her lifetime.

But like his father, Bunky, who has a pool plastering business, is a skilled carpenter. Two years ago, he took the remains of the structure into the same woodshop where it was created and began rebuilding it.

He took the glass shards to a local shop and had them match the colors. He bought plywood and paint. But he hit a snag last month when a county inspector noticed the island and ordered the work to stop.

"We had no idea what he was endeavoring to do out there," said Bob Winchester, the county's environmental programs supervisor.

Winchester was raised in Baltimore County and didn't remember the duck pond. But some co-workers filled him in. It all sounded familiar suddenly; Winchester recalled hearing about the pond from his fiancee, Joanna Gavin.

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