`Santa' gives Aberdeen church $400,000 for renovations

Ex-bank president who played St. Nick gave gift

Man gives Aberdeen church $400,000

Aberdeen

December 26, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Well, I just thought it was a good idea," R. Raymond Mitchell said of his gift of $400,000 to the Grove Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen.

Mitchell, 88, has been a member of the church for more than 70 years. His generosity will help pay for part of the recent $1.2 million renovation of the church's community center, a place for local activities ranging from Girl Scout and Boy Scout meetings to a soup kitchen.

Mitchell, who was president of Harford Bank from the 1960s through the 1980s, is well-known in town. He could often be found eating lunch at the New Ideal Diner on U.S. 40, a popular gathering spot for the town's movers and shakers. For decades, he donned a red suit and white beard to play Santa Claus in Aberdeen's annual holiday parade.

Now, he's playing the part of Santa on a larger scale.

The center, named the Monroe Community Building after the Rev. Perry Monroe, dates to the 1950s and originally housed the Sunday school. It hadn't been renovated since 1976.

Congregants approved a plan to add several thousand square feet and bring the building up to code. They also wanted to add air conditioning, handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a larger kitchen. Construction began in 2002, and the improved building was dedicated in October 2003.

"We're rapidly expanding the community use now that it's available and remodeled," said the Rev. David Wilson, the church's pastor since June.

Nonprofit groups can use the building for free or for a donation. Other organizations pay a small fee, he said.

The only problem that remained was paying for the renovation. The church has fewer than 200 members, many retired and on fixed incomes, Wilson said.

David Yensan, a church member since 1977, led the church's efforts to upgrade the building.

"People asked me where the money was going to come from," Yensan said. "I just said, `Let's get the job done and we'll worry about the money later.' We knew it had to be done, and we said God will provide for us."

In 2003, Mitchell had put up stock as collateral so construction could begin. About a month ago, Yensan approached Mitchell and asked him to consider changing his collateral to an outright gift.

"He didn't even stop to think about it," Yensan said. "He just said `Yeah.' It was a very casual conversation, really."

Yensan would not have asked for the money if he thought the request would burden Mitchell.

"I've known Ray for a long time," he said. "He and I serve on different boards and committees together. I just kind of knew he had the wherewithal to do it."

Moving to Texas

Mitchell's wife recently died, and he is planning to move to Texas next month to be with his son and daughter-in-law. But his name will live on in Aberdeen. On Dec. 19, the church presented Mitchell with a plaque and announced that the addition would be known as the R. Raymond Mitchell Auditorium.

Before Mitchell's gift, the church had raised about $600,000, Yensan said.

"We've got some money in an endowment, and with another pledge drive will probably have the building paid off next year," he said.

Church's origin

Grove Presbyterian Church was founded in the 1840s and named for the grove of trees where the congregation met. The pastor came by horseback from Washington to preach in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen.

One organization that appreciates the renovation is Martha's Meal, which feeds the needy one day a week. Ten churches take turns serving from 35 to 80 people.

Mary Barnhart, who started the organization in 1996, said the renovation is wonderful.

"We have new tables and chairs; everything is freshly painted," she said.

And she appreciates the air conditioning.

"Before, it got very hot in the summer," she said. "So that was truly a blessing."

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