After devastating fire, chapel and paintings given new life

Building twice embellished by same artist, years apart

November 06, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

The church members and firefighters listened quietly as people spoke of their memories of the chapel. Only a few turned to look when a man with a long gray beard and tattered leather jacket limped into the church.

But members of Linthicum Heights United Methodist Church had gathered yesterday to celebrate the reopening of a 178-year-old chapel that this man, artist Ronald Spencer, had painted with intricate designs - twice.

As a young man, he spent months lying on his back, painting mythological creatures and swirls of stars on the walls and ceiling on the church's Holly Run Chapel. Then, a little more than two years ago, after a fire had ravaged the small chapel, Spencer returned to re-create the images he had painted nearly three decades before.

"See those blue phoenixes?" Spencer said after the ceremony, pointing to birds painted high on the wall. "Those are interesting because like the chapel, they burned and came back."

Yesterday, the pastor of the church, the Rev. David Shank, told of the stormy day in July 2004 when the chapel caught fire. He was working in his study in the parsonage when he saw a flash of lightning and heard a boom. When he rushed to the window, flames were shooting from the chapel's roof.

Firefighters from 10 companies were able to prevent the fire from destroying the chapel's core structure. But the ceiling - and Spencer's artwork - was destroyed.

Being struck by lightning is only one twist in the extraordinary history of the chapel, which was built on the banks of its namesake river, abandoned for decades and then moved brick by brick to its current location.

The chapel was built in 1828 and is believed to have been the first church to be affiliated with the Methodist Protestant denomination, one of the precursors of the United Methodist Church.

Over the years, fewer people came to worship at the small brick chapel, and it closed in 1911. For more than five decades, it sat at the corner of Old Annapolis and Camp Meade roads, abandoned and decaying.

While Linthicum Heights United Methodist congregation members liked their large, Colonial-style church on School Lane, they were sad to see the little chapel crumble.

So, in 1966, they took the chapel apart and rebuilt it on a grassy slope behind the church.

At yesterday's service, Glenn Shipley spoke of chipping old mortar off the bricks the summer after his sophomore year of college.

Church members used some of the bricks, along with the pulpit, altar rail, wood-burning stove and timbers to re-create the chapel at the new location.

For years, the chapel was used for weddings, baptisms, funerals and holy days.

"It gives you roots," said church member Anna Lee Dill of Linthicum Heights. Her daughter was married in the chapel, and her grandchild was baptized there.

However, the walls of the chapel were blank until Spencer's mother, a church member, volunteered him to paint them in 1978. He spent long hours, often at night, lying on scaffolding painting intricate images of griffins, phoenixes, urns and holly on the walls and ceiling.

He recalls those months as some of the happiest in his life. "The windows would be open and I could hear a whole orchestra of katydids," he said.

So when he heard that the ceiling had been destroyed, he was quick to offer his help. After builders had stabilized the structure and replaced the roof, Spencer and a team of helpers picked up paintbrushes.

It was a powerful experience for Spencer to paint these walls again in middle age. "I had a whole psychological revamp because I thought of all the things that I had lived through," he said.

At yesterday's ceremony, church members thanked Spencer for his work and shook the hands of some of the firefighters who extinguished the blaze.

Shank spoke of the generations of people who made the chapel part of their lives. "It is as though within the sacred place of that chapel," he said, "you can hear the voices of those that came before us united in prayer."

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