Restoring a divine vision

Rededication: Heaven-inspired ceiling symbolizes hope and recalls the past at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.

December 15, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

It was as if the members of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church had been transported back in time.

As they walked yesterday into the sanctuary of the nearly 120-year-old building for an afternoon service, the churchgoers craned their necks in admiration at the depiction of the open night sky -- just the way fellow Lovely Lane members might have done a century before.

"My grandmother went to the church, my mother grew up in it, and now I'm here and so are my children," said member Jack Olaughlin, as he leaned back in his chair and beamed at the ceiling. "So to see this happen is really unbelievable."

Members and visitors were taking part in the celebration of the completion of a $1.2 million restoration of the sanctuary, designed by noted architect Stanford White, to its appearance in 1887.

The woodwork has been cleaned to a rich, dark shine. All 800 seats have been reupholstered. The organ pipes were cleaned and gilded. The sound system was upgraded.

But the highlight of the restoration is a 360-degree ceiling mural of the heavens -- tight puffs of clouds, sparkly pinpricks for stars, a grand Milky Way, and celestial bodies such as Saturn and Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Members and visitors gasped at the beauty of the blue dome ringed in lights, which gives the impression that the church has no roof, bringing its worshipers that much closer to God.

They used words such as "gorgeous" and "spectacular." They hugged each other and smiled.

"It's very inspirational," said Fred Yoder, who came back with his wife, Jerrie, after 40 years to see the church of their youth. The Yoders met as teen-agers at Lovely Lane, when the ceiling was covered in a painted canvas with stars stenciled on. They fell in love while in the church's youth fellowship and were married at the church in 1962.

The Yoders -- who now attend church in Towson -- remember when the ceiling was badly damaged by leaks, and the stenciled canvas and walls were disfigured by peeling paint.

"It gives us great joy to see that sanctuary has been finished as beautifully as it has," Jerrie Yoder said.

The sanctuary restoration is the most expensive phase of the church repair project, which will cost $5 million to $6 million.

Bringing pleasure to members and visitors is one of the reasons why the restoration project is important, said the celebration's keynote speaker, the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, who is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The restoration, however, has an even greater significance, speakers said yesterday.

Lovely Lane Church, located at 2200 St. Paul St. in Baltimore, is called the mother church of American Methodism because the church's first pastor, Francis Asbury, was elected the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America at its inaugural convention, held at Lovely Lane Meeting House in 1784.

But over the years -- like many other religious denominations -- the United Methodist Church has seen its membership decline. At meetings of church leaders, McAllister-Wilson said, budget cuts are often the topic of discussion.

But such an investment in a historic building gives hope, suggests confidence and optimism, and re-energizes a people and a community, he said.

The restored blue dome says, "The sky is the limit," McAllister-Wilson said.

"It's a great day of celebrating a congregation that in all these years did not give up," said the Rev. Nancy Nedwell, Lovely Lane's pastor since 1999. "They made a commitment to the community, and they're staying."

Bishop Felton May, leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, called the renovation "the beginning of the renaissance of United Methodism in the Baltimore area."

"How will we remember this moment -- the smell of paint, the glorious beauty of artistry that hovers over our heads?" May asked the more than 400 people gathered at the church.

"We will remember all of the above, but we will remember this as a moment in history when we, God's people, understood ... that God has moved into the community."

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