Lightning damages tiny historic chapel

Linthicum: Fire and water ruin a hand-painted fresco on the ceiling of Holly Run Church.

July 09, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Brick by brick, volunteers from Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church took apart their 19th-century chapel, moved it a mile and reconstructed it to save it from ruin.

When it was completed in 1966, Holly Run Church -- the first chapel built by the Methodist Protestant Church of America -- was the pride of the northern Anne Arundel County congregation, a replica of the original church.

Of particular pride was its frescoed ceiling, painted in painstaking detail by a Baltimore artist.

But when severe thunderstorms roared through the Baltimore area late Wednesday afternoon, damaging buildings and flooding waterways, a bolt of lightning struck the tiny church, setting it on fire.

Firefighters saved the core structure but not the hand-painted ceiling, which suffered irreparable water damage.

Yesterday afternoon, contractors and insurance agents circled the chapel, while a steady stream of church members stopped by to see the damage. Some snapped photographs. Others stood craning their necks toward the rear of the roof, charred in several spots.

Although church leaders spoke of replacing the ceiling and commissioning a new fresco, members felt the loss.

"I don't know what to think," said Russel Holmes, church treasurer. "I don't know how we're going to find an artist to replicate this work."

Painted in 1978 by artist Ronald Spencer, the ceiling is a reproduction of the ceiling in the original church. Spencer, then 31, spent several months lying on his back on scaffolding to paint the fresco -- a deep blue sky dotted with gold stars.

Yesterday, that pattern was marred by several gashes, as well as smoke marks and water stains creeping in all directions.

John Wayson, who lives across the street from Holly Run, said his house shook when the lightning struck Wednesday.

"I heard a loud sound -- like an explosion -- and when I looked out my window I saw the smoke," said Wayson, whose daughter was married in the historic chapel. "When I saw that, the first thing I thought about was that ceiling."

When Millie and Dale Townsend learned about the destruction of the ceiling, the elderly couple let out a collective gasp.

"That's horrible," said Millie Townsend, who along with her husband has attended many memorable services in Holly Run since they joined the church in 1958.

Her husband agreed, describing the congregation's affection for Holly Run.

"We're proud because it's a part of the Methodist heritage," Dale Townsend said, as he surveyed the damage. "And because it was so lovingly taken apart and rebuilt."

Holly Run was founded in 1828, when members of the Patapsco Methodist Episcopal Church of Maryland broke with the larger Episcopal church -- apparently over a leadership dispute -- to form their own splinter church off Old Annapolis Road.

On a plot of land less than a mile from where Holly Run now stands, Abner Linthicum Jr. supervised the construction of a 30-foot-long chapel named after a nearby stream. By 1911, the congregation had outgrown the small chapel, prompting it to build the larger home, now known as Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church.

It was not until 1966, however, that the congregation decided to salvage its original chapel, which had been abandoned. The builders used the original bricks, timber, pulpit, altar rail and stove. Holly Run now sits in the shadow of the larger, more modern church complex, tucked away in a tree-filled grove.

It was from this grove that the Rev. David Shank, pastor of the 1,100-member church, watched the chapel burn Wednesday.

"It was sad because it's very special to have that building," he said. "It's like having the roots of your church family on your property. And it's always a delight to worship there."

Shank said the chapel, which seats about 70, is reserved for special occasions including Ash Wednesday, New Year's Eve, weddings and funerals.

"It's a very intimate little chapel," Shank said.

He and other church leaders praised the Anne Arundel County Fire Department for saving Holly Run from more severe damage.

Division Chief John M. Scholz, a department spokesman, said it took 52 firefighters a half-hour to extinguish the blaze.

"There was a lot of concern for the church, so we tried to surgically remove the fire, which is more labor-intensive," Scholz said. He was not able to estimate the damage yesterday.

Still, church members could not hide their dismay when they heard about the ceiling. Some have long referred to Spencer as their da Vinci.

"It takes a special person to lie up on that scaffold and paint," said Mel Morrison, co-chairman of the church trustees

Morrison is working with insurance agents to assess the damage and with contractors who will tear down the water-logged ceiling next week.

"It's one of the things that really stood out in the church," Morrison said. "But they also thought the damage would be more severe. We have to accept it, it's part of life."

In the meantime, Shank said, church historians will try to contact Spencer. If they cannot, the church will try to find a new artist.

On Sunday, Shank will talk about the Holly Run fire, reminding his congregation that despite the damage, they have much to be thankful for.

"We have to remember one thing," he said, "that things could always be worse."

News researchers Jean Packard and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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