`A magical place' revived

Chapel: Restoration of a 19th-century landmark is completed.

October 19, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Dressed in their starched white collars and woolen suits, feathered hats and high heels, generations of worshippers at St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Chapel walked or rode in horse-drawn buggies, trains or pickup trucks to their one-room wooden chapel in Ruxton every week.

Sunday was church day, a day off for Jones Falls mill hands, as well as the live-in chauffeurs, domestics and cooks at Ruxton's fancy homes. It was a day devoted to God. And in the historic church by the railroad tracks - big enough to seat only 70 people - the African-American members of St. John's prayed and sang. Sometimes their voices, joined in hymns or the Lord's Prayer, drew the attention of white neighbors, who would sit on the grass under a canopy of walnut trees and listen.

The gray-blue chapel with the lancet windows and green shutters is mostly silent now. St. John's hasn't had an active congregation since the 1950s, when many people ceased using live-in domestic help and the trains no longer stopped in Ruxton, leaving the few remaining members to find other places to worship. The doors of the church stay locked on all but a few Sundays when there are special services or weddings. Few people who drive down winding Bellona Avenue even notice the "carpenter Gothic-style" building tucked in the woods next to a Texaco station.

But St. John's has not been forgotten. In the 1980s, a group of Ruxton-area residents began raising more than $80,000 to help restore the property, home to one of the oldest African-American churches in Baltimore County. Tomorrow, the chapel's doors will open to the public for the first time since the St. John's chapel, parsonage and cemetery were painted, repaired and restored.

"We wanted to show the community that this is being maintained as a historic shrine," said Carolyn Scott LeVere, head of the chapel's board of trustees and a great-great-granddaughter of James Aquilla Scott, who founded the church in 1835.

St. John's existence "lets the world know that the rich Caucasians of Ruxton thought enough of their help to give them a place and a day to worship," said LaVere, 63, a private-duty nurse who lives in Catonsville. "They didn't have to sneak out at night or put up a tent to pray."

In 1833, James Aquilla Scott, a blacksmith and pastor, bought the 3/4 -acre wedge-shaped lot with four other trustees who formed the "Bethel Episcopal Religious Society." They paid $15 for the land and built a log chapel and a graveyard for slaves and free blacks. Scott preached in the church for about 25 years before he died of a heart attack while giving a sermon in 1858.

The log church burned down in 1867, and the current building was erected in 1886 with whatever materials the builders could find, according to Jim Holechek, an amateur historian and author who also serves on the St. John's board of trustees. The front wall of the church is decorated with the stenciled words, "Welcome to all," the three stained-glass windows are small and not especially ornate, and the floorboards are worn and of varying widths.

However, when filled with the Scotts, the Chaneys, the Turners and the Yateses and other families on Sunday mornings, the chapel was a magical place, said Anna Julia Marie Scott Brown, who at 91 is one of the oldest living Scott relatives and who attended St. John's for years.

"It was lovely," said Brown, the church founder's great-granddaughter and a resident of Bare Hills, a historic African-American community on Falls Road. "Everyone knew everyone else."

There are 31 historic African-American Churches in Baltimore County, both active and inactive, according to Louis S. Diggs, a Catonsville historian and author who has studied extensively the history of African-American communities in the county. The oldest African-American church in the county is Mount Gilboa AME Church in Oella, which was built in 1799, he said.

In the county's 40 African-American communities, churches were more than a building to visit once a week to pray; they were the center of people's lives and sponsored everything from socials to literary nights. "Anything that went on in that community, it was done in that church," Diggs said. Before the county made provisions to establish black schools in 1872, churches helped to informally educate children, he said.

Victim of neglect

After the Ruxton church shut its doors, the Scotts continued to pay taxes on the property and to maintain it as best they could. Over time, however, the church, stone parsonage and graveyard suffered from wear and neglect.

Then in 1979, while researching a zoning issue for the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, Gail O'Donovan of Ruxton stumbled upon the church property for the first time and saw a historic gem hidden within the dilapidated buildings, peeling paint and overgrown cemetery.

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