The parishioners at St. George's Spesutia Church were not celebrating Christmas on Sunday morning, the Rev. Bill Smith told them amid poinsettias and holiday decorations, but rather The Incarnation.
"We tell it over and over and over again for one reason: so we can become part of the story," he said about the tale of Christmas.
But for those gathered at the Perryman church, the oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland, Sunday's service was the end of one part of their story.
The Eucharist service is expected to be the last one to be held at St. George's, after The Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, ordered an end to the parish's services earlier this year.
"Although we would hope that this is not the final chapter in St. George's history, today brings the current chapter to an end," Rev. Scott Slater read in a message to the congregation as the service closed.
Slater, a Canon to the Bishop, had come to oversee the parish's last service and collect some items, including a silver set that dates to 1722 and a copy of a historic Bible known as the "Vinegar Bible," because of a typo in the Parable of the Vineyard.
The parish has been operating since 1671, and been in its current building since 1851. In a November letter, however, Sutton informed the congregation that low attendance, a lack of income and a downturn in pledges meant it would only be able to sustain itself for another four years and was therefore required to end services.
The Bishop had also cited a "pattern of conflicts" both within the congregation and between the parish and diocese, although two members told The Aegis last month that the conflict had only been with one member with whom Sutton had a hostile relationship.
The diocese is not closing the church or historic cemetery, and services like a food bank that operates on the grounds will continue to operate.
Many longtime attendees were unhappy that Sunday's service was the parish's last.
One of them, Alberto L. Brown, of Aberdeen, has been with the parish since 1973. Brown gave the first reading Sunday.
"I think it's a sorrowful day for the parish and I feel that Bishop Sutton could have done better," he said, adding he is now considering attending a church like St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Aberdeen.
Brown said he was not really surprised, however, at the news the parish was ending services.
"They had been saying it for quite some time, and I feel that the diocese failed us," he said. "They didn't want to give us a priest."
The congregation had dwindled in recent years – Dulcie Carey, of Joppatowne, said she could count the regular attendees on her hands – but swelled to about 35 people for Sunday's final service.
Some of those who came just wanted to pay tribute to the parish. Suzanne Chadwick, an operatic singer, started the service by performing "Cantique de Noel."
"As an Episcopalian, I just wanted to be here to support these people, because it's a sad day," Barbara Snyder, of Perryville, said. She brought several people with her, including John Fisher, of Havre de Grace, to the final service.
Fisher called Sunday "the most important day in the history of the church."
Smith, a retired priest from St. Mary's Church in Emmorton, had been leading the St. George's Eucharist service for about five weeks and urged the congregation to focus on the positive.
"There is sadness because there are people that are going to lose their house of worship, but there is great joy because the foundations laid by this house of worship have already been laid in the diocese," Smith said in his sermon.
"Literally, the members of St. George have carried the Gospel everywhere and will continue to do so," he continued. "The membership of this church will disperse itself and find itself in places they really didn't intend to be, but they will carry on, they will preach the Gospel and that will bring joy and happiness."
Slater also stayed hopeful, telling the congregation that "the presence of God is not housed in any property" and that "it is the intention of the diocese that the congregation that worships here will not be deprived of word or sacrament."
After the service, Slater noted the diocese could consider renting the building to another congregation or starting another ministry there.
"The potential is certainly here," he said, adding the "challenge" is the location. Perryman Road is not the major thoroughfare it once was.
But keeping St. George's going as an Episcopal parish was simply impractical, he said. The church has not had a full-time priest in about 20 years and when Slater arrived at the parish a year ago to do an audit, he found financial records in disarray and other records lost.
When base realignment at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground brought the prospect of people moving to the greater Aberdeen area, the parish did not have the funds to advertise and possibly gain new members, he added.
"It's tough, obviously. This is not the first church to cease services or to close, and sometimes the changes are based on geographic or cultural shifts," Slater said, citing three other parishes in the diocese that are "imperiled."
"People are looking for programs, looking for intergenerational programs. People are not loyal to a denomination as much as they used to be," Slater said.
But the closing of a historic parish is still difficult to take for people like Carey, who came to Joppatowne from Nottingham, England, 40 years ago and has been an altar server and all-around helper at St. George's ever since.
"The moment I stepped off the boat, I went right here," Carey said as she closed the doors to the church, the last parishioner to leave.
"I have seen lots of ministers come and go, and it's the last 10 years that we have started to go down because we really needed to have the money," she said. "I really think that if we could have afforded a priest even part-time, we would have made it."
Carey said she knows it's just a building and God is everywhere, but it was sad to close a place that had become such a part of her life and of many others over the centuries.
"I do know truly God was in this place," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun