St. Martin's-in-Field will mark 50 years

Members of the Episcopal congregation in Severna Park will honor the church's founders during a celebration Sunday


The founders of St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church in Severna Park will be honored Sunday when current members and friends of the church gather to celebrate St. Martin's 50th anniversary.

The celebration begins at 10 a.m. in Heck Hall, where guests can tour a display of old photographs and historical documents tracing the church's past and anticipating its future.

The celebration will continue at 11 a.m. in the newly renovated chapel at a service led by former Rector Fred Vanderpoel and the church's interim rector, Jim Sell. A luncheon will be held afterward in the parish hall, "when everybody can talk to people they haven't seen in years," said Ardath Cade, celebration chairwoman.

The St. Martin's story began on a Sunday in 1954 with a group of Episcopalians who were living year-round in Severna Park, a popular summertime destination for Baltimoreans that was fast developing into a bedroom community for Baltimore and Washington.

Having no formal meeting place did not deter the original congregation from scheduling its first church service. Dressed in the style of the day - the women in dresses, hats and gloves, the men in suits and ties, the children in their Sunday best - they gathered on the outdoor tennis court at Towerbank, the family estate of Casper T. Marston and his wife, Imogene, on June 20, 1954.

Despite the outdoor setting, all the essentials of an Episcopal church service were in place: an altar, albeit a kitchen table covered with a white linen cloth; a choir, with the voices from a tape deck switched on and off at the appropriate time; and some unorthodox kneelers crafted from a collection of bed pillows. After the service, Imogene Marston served tea sandwiches, cookies and lemonade to guests.

To assure that a church would be built, she offered to donate 8 acres on Benfield Road.

But the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland expressed doubts. Officials said the land was "too far out in the country, more than a mile and a half from the train station," said Lee Marston, 72, Imogene Marston's grandson, who is part of five generations, including his parents, wife, children, grandchildren and an aunt and uncle, who have belonged to St. Martin's.

But church leaders eventually decided that the location wasn't too far out after all, and allowed the 150-member congregation to build its church. Ground was broken Nov. 11, 1954, and work was completed in June 1955.

"The church is a very important part of our family and of Severna Park," said Lee Marston, owner of J.J. Haines wholesale floor covering. "When it was started, there were only two other churches in Severna Park, St. John's [the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church] and Woods [Memorial Presbyterian Church]."

Today, St. Martin's-in-the-Field, which has been joined by Our Shepherd Lutheran, Severna Park Baptist and Severna Park United Methodist churches along Benfield Road and Benfield Boulevard, includes several buildings: the original chapel, a rectory that houses the church office and nursery, a parish house built in 1964 that houses a kitchen, the day-school office and some classes, and the current sanctuary and classrooms, built in 1989.

"My memory is that the original members were a group of people who were so diligent in their pursuit," said Lew Heck, 72, vice president of the Severna Park branch of Coldwell Banker, who was a young man in the military when his father, Army Col. Lewis O. Heck, helped organize St. Martin's and became its first rector.

Heck recalls that while his father was in the military he sought out the local Episcopal bishop wherever he was stationed, and asked whether he could help.

Although he was an Episcopal clergyman, Colonel Heck spent his military career not as a chaplain but as an intelligence officer. When he was ready to retire, he contacted the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, Noble C. Powell, and, again, asked what he could do.

The bishop had a job for him. Heck drove to Severna Park from Fort Meade to meet the fledgling congregation. He served as rector of St. Martin's until 1966.

"The group was so active, so full of accomplishment," said Lew Heck. "It was a magnificent thing to build that parish."

Even the cornerstone of the first chapel, now a center for community activities called Heck Hall, is unique. The stone was a gift from St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a church in London's Trafalgar Square that was damaged in World War II. Rector Heck, who had been stationed in England, arranged the gift.

The church opened a day school with a nursery and kindergarten in 1963 at a time when kindergarten was not offered in the county public school system. In 1991, the day school expanded to include first grade. Today, 327 youngsters attend classes from nursery school to seventh grade. Next year, the school will offer eighth-grade classes, said Betsy Bacot, who has been a member of the church since 1958.

The current congregation of 1,200 has welcomed a new associate rector, the Rev. Alistair So, and an interim rector, Sell. A new rector is being sought.

Lew Heck summed up his feelings about the church. "The devotion and the dynamics of this wonderful group of people is beautiful to behold," he said.

Said Cade, the celebration chairwoman: "St. Martin's has a very diverse group of people who all have a really strong center of caring."

The church is proud of its outreach in the community, its work with Habitat for Humanity and its support of a sister church in Haiti.

"Our vision for these 50 years has not changed," said Cade. "It is a vision of service and worship and dedication."

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