Parish places faith in plans to fill its pews

St. George's: A Harford County church rich in history but low in numbers looks to the past -- and community events -- to attract new worshipers.

October 31, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Dulcie Carey joined St. George's Episcopal Church in Perryman in 1973, members packed the 27 pews for 10 a.m. service on Sundays.

"If we didn't leave home in time, we couldn't find a seat," Carey said.

But times have changed for St. George's. Most pews are now empty on Sundays. The church has about 40 members, most with gray or white hair. On a good day, 30 attend church. Five children attend Sunday school.

Carey said membership declined slowly as people moved away, joined larger churches or died. Few arrived to take their places. As membership continues to fall, the church is struggling to survive.

"When they die, their pledges die with them," Carey said.

There is no full-time priest at St. George's. Retired priests from a list of substitutes celebrate Holy Eucharist. On one side of the church, the floor is sinking into the sandy soil. The red carpet is thread-worn.

"If this were a Starbucks or an Exxon, it would have closed down long ago," said Maryland Episcopal Church historian P. Kingsley Smith, who was a rector at St. George's from 1996 to 1998.

Small churches with falling memberships and small endowments like St. George's usually have two options, said Smith. They close down or combine with other churches.

Neither option sounds good to the members of St. George's. They are trying to keep their church open and independent, and even increase membership, by focusing on St. George's unique history.

St. George's is the oldest Episcopal church in Harford County. It was built in 1671 on land that is now part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and moved to Perryman in 1718. The current church was built 1851.

Its remaining members are active. Their pledges keep the church running, though little is left over for repairs. They are trying to attract the community to the church, even if not on Sundays.

"A lot of people are not coming to church, and that is fine," said Betsy Keithley, who at 40 is one of the youngest members. "We do other things. We want people to know that we have more to offer."

On a recent Sunday, the church held an English tea to raise money to restore its 1766 vestry house. Church women dressed in 18th-century clothes served tea and cucumber sandwiches to 50 visitors who paid $15 each for the tea and a tour of the church graveyard.

Virginia Rothwell, who has been a church member since 1942, led the tour through the cemetery, where her husband is buried. Dressed in a bright red bonnet and a long period dress, she pointed out gravestones of Revolutionary War patriots, clergy and "the swinging captain," a sea captain named John Clark Monk.

When Monk died in 1827, his body was wrapped in linens, soaked in rum and encased in a lead casket that swings from chains like a ship at sea. He did not want his body to touch the ground, Rothwell said, as children looked down through the gaps in Monk's crypt to see his swinging casket.

The church also has a silver Communion plate and flagon stamped "1722," and a "Vinegar Bible," a rare 1717 King James with a mistake. A heading in Luke reads "parable of the vinegar," instead of "parable of the vineyard."

"We have our little treasures," said Michele Hadaway, the church's senior warden. "And I think it is sad that we haven't had as much attention as we should get."

Of course, preserving St. George's treasures also costs money. Upkeep of the graveyard costs $1,000 a year.

Few believe the church's history alone will fill the pews, but there are signs that St. George's is rebounding. The church will have a "priest in charge" every Sunday beginning in February.

And the success of the English tea has members considering other community events, including 18th-century craft demonstrations and a medieval music concert.

"It will be Harford County's tiniest museum," said Keithley. "It's tiny, but it's mighty."

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