A landmark church

Asbury Methodist Episcopal is added to Harford's historic list

May 11, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

The most recent addition to the list of Harford County landmarks won its place for its simplicity, history and role in the life of its community.

Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1838 on donated ground that was owned by former slaves. Named for the street in Churchville where it was built, the parish was, for much of its history, the only church in the county where African-Americans were invited to worship.

"My family gave the land and helped build the church," said the Rev. Lewis Smith, a retired Methodist minister. "Asbury started in a one-room building in 1838 and was the center of the community for decades. Everybody came from everywhere to our church. It was the only black church. You went there, or you didn't go" to church.

The modest, white frame structure on Asbury Road, less than a mile from Route 22, is the third building that the congregation has called church. All that remains of the first is a nearby pile of stones and wood.

The second church building, a one-room, unimposing frame building, dates to the late 19th century. Since the current church was built in 1924, the second building has served as a church hall.

"There were lots of Sunday dinners with homemade rolls and fried chicken in the hall next door to the church," said Juanita Holly-Ellis, 50. "We had family reunions, wakes and those great Sunday dinners there. The church hall was a great place to socialize."

Church was the gathering place, Holly-Ellis said.

"It was always crowded, and you knew everybody there," she said. "You miss all that today. There don't seem to be central places for people to gather."

Her mother, Joyce Holly, 70, remembered her teenage years when life centered on her family, school and church, all of it on Asbury Road.

"We went to church every Sunday," Holly said. "When I was a teenager, my father laid down a strict rule: If you don't go to church, you don't go on dates."

The congregation frequently opened its glass-pane doorway, which was built into the steeple beneath a diamond-shaped window, for as many as 200 worshipers.

"When I was growing up, it was get there on time or you would have to stand," said Holly-Ellis.

Smith, who in his youth served as lay leader, assistant pastor and Sunday school supervisor, said 200 worshipers made for a crowd, "but we needed that much room.

Holly's father, who was Smith's uncle, was for years the church caretaker. He would get his extended family up early on Sunday, shouting, "`It is time for church,'" she said.

Holly-Ellis recalled how her grandfather "always left the house before us, so he could start the wooden stove or open up the windows."

"In summer, I remember more about swatting bees and flies than the lectures," she said.

And everybody, regardless of musical bent, joined the choir. "I still can't hold a tune, but it didn't stop me from singing," she said.

For Smith, the eighth of 12 children, Asbury Road was his life. Until seventh grade, he attended a one-room school across the street from the church, a building without electricity or running water. He graduated from the Bel Air Colored High School on Hayes Street and then studied at what was then Morgan State College and later Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

After years in the ministry, serving parishes in Maryland and Washington, he returned to Asbury Road and resides on property adjacent to the church grounds.

In the past few decades, as families moved from the area, the congregation dwindled to the point where there were not enough members to maintain it. Eventually, the Methodist Conference opted to sell Asbury church and consolidate parishioners with neighboring congregations.

Rather than lose their church home, members formed the Asbury Community Association and bought the building for $40,000 about 12 years ago. They leased the space to another congregation and have paid off the mortgage with dues and numerous fundraisers.

The community association asked the county this year for a landmark designation, hoping to further protect the building, which has been a Maryland historic site since 1979.

About 30 structures, many of them churches that are still in use, are on the county's official list of landmarks.

The designation brings with it tax credits on the cost of renovations and a requirement that any proposed changes to the building's exterior must win approval of the Harford Preservation Commission.

At the request of the Asbury association, Sarah Corey, county historic preservation planner, did much of the research and deemed the building and its history to be noteworthy. "The fact that Asbury dates to 1838 with a present church on the original site that is in relatively good condition and the fact that it was the only African-American church in Harford are all big parts of the designation," Corey said.

A history entwined with so many families prompted the request, said Holly-Ellis, the group's treasurer.

"Most of us moved away, and many changed congregations, but when we come back, we go there to church," she said "That building has been there my entire life and my mother's. It is part of our family's history and we want to make sure it continues on."

Making Asbury an official landmark "gives our kids a place to see and remember," she said.

When people with ties to the community come home to visit, they usually come to the church, often to show their children what life was all about, Smith said.

"This is a proud, important building because of the struggles our ancestors went through to build and maintain it," he said. "All the other black churches in this county grew from this one. We need that church for the spiritual growth of us all."

Asbury church became the 30th Harford landmark by unanimous vote of the County Council last month.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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