Preserving a church built for our soldiers

Chapel: The rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church hopes its restoration will remind the community of the building's history in World War I.

January 20, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. Phebe L. McPherson didn't understand how the World War I ministers managed to build Epiphany Episcopal Church near what is now Fort Meade.

Over the years, she had heard about the two Washington women who gave the seed money, the workers who constructed the chapel in just 60 days, the chaplain-turned-jitney driver who ferried soldiers from the Army base to the Odenton Road church.

But until she saw terror in her own country, and the way people came together to help victims afterward, the history didn't sink in.

"It was just sort of facts on a page," McPherson says now. "After Sept. 11, I realize what the social upheaval was like back then. Everybody was trying to pitch in."

Now, McPherson is doing her part to ensure that spirit endures. She is spearheading a $1 million restoration of Epiphany -- which is believed to be the only World War I chapel remaining in the nation.

More than 100,000 soldiers passed through Camp Meade -- now Fort Meade -- on their way to the trenches in France. On their way, many stopped at the nearby Epiphany Chapel and Church House, as it was then known, for prayers, hot meals and dances.

Bishops from Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania purchased the property along Odenton Road in 1918 after receiving an $11,000 donation from two Episcopalian women whose only stipulation was that the building be named Epiphany. Within 60 days, builders constructed a home away from home for soldiers, complete with pianos, a game room and a kitchen.

Upstairs, the church provided sleeping quarters -- used mostly for family who came from Baltimore to visit their war-bound sons. A few hundred daughters went, too, part of the Signal Corps known as the "Hello Girls," who worked in communication behind the lines.

Sometimes, the church's minister, the Rev. Samuel Tagart "Tag" Steele Jr., would cruise through Odenton offering rides to soldiers walking the long mile from the base to the church.

When McPherson became Epiphany's rector 15 years ago, church members proudly told her that Civil War Gen. George G. Meade's granddaughters donated a portrait and a sword to the church when it was founded. Intrigued, she searched the Maryland Church Archives and found a scrapbook with chaplains' schedules, letters and church photographs that laid out Epiphany's history during World War I.

Even many members had no idea of the connection. "I was flabbergasted," McPherson said upon learning the history of her church. "When I came here, nobody was talking about history. We were just talking about a church."

Ten years ago, when the building's buckled floor and antiquated wiring and heating system made clear that renovations were in order, McPherson started talking about preservation. She didn't want to turn the church into a museum, but hoped that restoring Epiphany to its original look would remind the fast-changing area of its history.

McPherson could find only two World War I-era pictures of the church. Fortunately, the building had not changed much. The outside still had its cottage design, though brown shingles and aluminum siding replaced the white clapboard look. The inside still had the chapel, nave, living room, kitchen and sleeping quarters, but it had poor insulation, and the windows leaked.

The 100-family congregation began renovation on Veterans Day 2001. The Pentagon helped raise $22,000 from military chapels around the world after an Army officer who worships at Epiphany told the U.S. Army's Chief of Chaplains Gaylord Gunhus about the project.

"Immediately, I thought, this is a wonderful story. We need to preserve this history," Gunhus said. "If this is the only chapel or institution that we recognize as having some impact on World War I, well, then maybe we haven't done a very good job throughout our history."

Gunhus, a chaplain for 36 years who spent last Christmas in Afghanistan, said he could visualize the soldiers at Epiphany after attending a recent service there. He imagined many stopped in with their units for prayer before boarding the train to Baltimore, then shipping out.

In June, the $500,000 restoration of the church's exterior was completed. Members added a peace garden with plaques commemorating the 2,929 chaplains who served in World War I. The congregation named a section of the public peace garden for lifelong parishioner James Conboy, and presented it to the Harmans resident on his 80th birthday last year.

Conboy, who grew up a mile from the church and used to walk there every Sunday with his mother and two brothers, has donated time and money to the restoration efforts.

"More and more, the members are becoming aware of the history," Conboy said. "And that's because Phebe was leading the charge to do something, or else."

Renovations inside have begun and are expected to cost $500,000. Improvements include insulation and window and floor repairs.

The church is keeping up a connection with its past -- every week members say a prayer for the military chaplains, and they have started an annual chaplain award. But maintaining a connection with Fort Meade hasn't been as easy. The base has three active churches, and Epiphany parishioners can't easily get on the post unless they have military identification.

"We do consider it part of the history of the past, but there's no longer a direct tie," said Robert Johnson, curator of the Fort Meade Museum.

Still, McPherson hopes the $50,000 peace garden will serve the community the way Epiphany did nearly 80 years ago, as a place to reflect on faith during uncertain times.

"It's a constant reminder of a time when this country was at war and seeking peace," McPherson said as she ambled through the garden with Conboy. "Pretty timely, no?"

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