Harry Holfelder

[ Age 70 ] Presbyterian church's retired pastor worked behind the scenes as advocate for people living with AIDS

October 27, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN REPORTER

Harry L. Holfelder, First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church's retired pastor and an early advocate for the spiritual and physical needs of people with AIDS, died of cancer Saturday at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He lived in Mount Washington and was 70.

Arriving in Baltimore nearly two decades ago as pastor of the Mount Vernon area church, the Rev. Holfelder held the pulpit for 13 years and was chairman of the AIDS Interfaith Network of Baltimore.

"People of faith have to ask themselves whether they will be compassionate or judgmental," he told an Evening Sun reporter in 1989. "Too many pastors see AIDS as God's punishment for an immoral or unhealthy lifestyle. We should follow the model of Christ as a compassionate being and supply comfort."

Friends described Rev. Holfelder as an "unprejudiced person" who was concerned that his church would be welcoming to different classes, races and educational attainment. He worked within the Presbyterian Church (USA) to gain acceptance of gays and lesbians.

"Harry was conventional on the outside but a free spirit inside," said John C. McLucas, an elder of the church active in its music program. "He was gleeful when he got a new idea. It would light him up."

"While he was a gifted preacher who was well-read and intelligent, he also possessed the common touch. He was unpretentious and funny at times and was ready to laugh at himself. But he was not afraid to be inspiring," Mr. McLucas added.

In the mid-1980s, as Baltimore experienced its first HIV-related deaths, the Rev. Holfelder worked behind the scenes to locate funeral homes that would accept burials of those who had died of the condition.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appointed him to his Citizens Advisory Commission and he had been chairman of the Maryland Interfaith Legislative Commission.

"Even when people got upset at him, he did not return it," said James Schroll, a friend and clerk of session at the church. "He was a nonconfrontational man, ready to mend rather than divide."

During his pastorate, the Rev. Holfelder oversaw the exterior restoration of his landmark brownstone church, whose Gothic Revival spire is the tallest in the city.

After stepping down in 1998, the Rev. Holfelder declined to retire and became interim pastor of First Presbyterian in Bel Air, Chestnut Grove in Phoenix, Brown Memorial in Bolton Hill and Springfield Presbyterian in Sykesville.

In 2003, the First and Franklin Street congregation voted him its pastor emeritus in recognition of his years of accomplishment.

Born in Ellwood City, Pa., he earned a bachelor of arts in history from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. He then graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1962. He studied at Columbia University, Oberlin College in Ohio and Eastern Baptist Seminary.

Before coming to Baltimore, he served churches in Carrolton and Akron, Ohio; Allentown, Pa.; and Bridgeton, N.J.

A memorial service will be at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at the First and Franklin Street Church, 210 W. Madison St.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, the former Linda Keul; a son, Mark Holfelder of West Long Branch, N.J.; two daughters, Lee Ann Holfelder of Williamsburg, Va., and Kaia Emerick of Parkville; a brother, Donald Holfelder, and a sister, Carol Smith, both of Ellwood City; and three granddaughters.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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