Closure of 166-year-old church in South Baltimore 'the end of an era in that corner of the kingdom'

At the end of the 19th century, as Baltimore’s population of German-born immigrants peaked at more than 40,000, there was high demand for German-speaking churches.

German immigrants had made a success of Zion Church on East Lexington Street. Holy Cross parish in Federal Hill was thriving, and so was St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Highlandtown.

Generations later, much of Baltimore’s German-American community has moved on, and a stalwart congregation of that era is about to close its doors.

Saints Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church, which has operated in one form or another at the corner of Hanover and Hamburg streets in South Baltimore for 166 years, will hold its final service Sunday.

The Rev. Lowell Thompson, senior pastor since 1962, will preside over the service. Longtime music director David Moore will perform celebratory music on the congregation’s 120-year-old Roosevelt organ.

To Bishop William Gohl, leader of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the closure marks the turning of a page.

“Saints Stephen and James has had a salutary influence for a long, long time,” he said. “We’ll miss the wide-open doors and the bells that sound each week, but also their presence in the community.

“It’s the end of an era in that corner of the kingdom,” he said.

Thompson said church membership has declined gradually, but steadily, over the decades, falling by 10 or 15 people per year.

The church drew about 1,000 people per week in 1900, when more than 11 percent of the city population spoke German. Today, it has fewer than 30 regular attendees.

More and more members have relocated to the suburbs, Thompson said, and as time passes, fewer seem willing to deal with the inconvenience involved in traveling to the city.

Fear of crime in the church’s South Baltimore neighborhood has been another factor, Thompson said, particularly for an aging membership.

But another feature of the church dating back to it founding has also presented a problem: When it was established as the German Evangelical Lutheran Saint Stephen Congregation, nearly everyone who attended lived within a few blocks.

They walked to services. As a result, the church never acquired its own parking lot.

Now Thompson, 85, is one of only two members who live in South Baltimore. Everyone else must park in Shofer’s Furniture lot across the street, and that’s available only on Sundays.

“People are afraid to drive in and walk around the neighborhood,” he said.

He said the shrinking congregation finally faced up to the reality that it can no longer meet the financial demands of maintaining an older building, which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Lutheran doctrine specifies that it’s up to a congregation and its clergymembers to make the decision to close a church. After discussing the possiblity for years, Saints Stephen and James members and their longtime pastor voted to make the move in a meeting last November.

The decision marks the end of one of the oldest continuously active congregations in South Baltimore — a church that got its start as a German-speaking congregation in 1852, didn’t add its first English-speaking services until 1893 and absorbed Saint James Evangelical Lutheran Church, an English-speaking congregation that stood directly across the street for decades, in 1962.

The closure also comes as the number of Americans who describe themselves as religious has been in decline for years, and congregations have long been dwindling.

Mainline Protestantism has been hit especially hard, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has been at the forefront of those losses.

The largest and most progressive Lutheran denomination in the United States, the ELCA claimed 5.2 million baptized members when it was formed out of three smaller Lutheran groups in 1988. That number had fallen by a third to 3.5 million by 2016.

The Delaware-Maryland synod, which governs more than 170 congregations in the two states, has had mixed success against the trend. The synod recently consolidated eight of its struggling Baltimore churches into three.

Yet even as Gohl closed three other churches in 2018, he has opened five.

In a way, the new churches call to mind the origins of Baltimore’s German congregations.

The city’s 19th-century Lutherans embraced the German immigrants who were flooding into the area at the time, many of them fleeing war and revolution in Europe.

Each of the five new congregations was founded to serve a newer group of Baltimore’s immigrants: Burmese, West African, Liberian, Latino and Asian.

“The Lutheran Church is an immigrant church,” Gohl said. “We’re just discovering new ways of serving the neighbors who are coming to Baltimore today.”

It didn’t help Saints Stephen and James that four other Lutheran churches remain active nearby: Martini Lutheran Church, Salem Lutheran Church, Christ Lutheran Church and Zion Church of the City of Baltimore are all within a mile of its location in Sharp Leadenhall — and each has better parking.

A panel of church members and synod administrators will determine the fate of the church building. The late Victorian Gothic structure, which is owned by the congregation, features salmon-colored brick, marble trim and a square bell tower.

Gohl said it would be difficult to acquire the permits needed to revive the building as a church, given its lack of a parking lot.

But the panel has been approached by investors interested in converting the building into apartments, a restaurant or even a brewery.

The Maryland Historic Trust named it a state historic site in 1976, and any renovations would have to satisfy state standards for historic buildings.

Gohl said the loss of the church means saying farewell to its decades of service to the surrounding community; service that continued with enthusiasm even as the neighborhood around it changed.

That service included a music program which, under Moore’s guidance, brought in an array of talented performers from across the area and presented frequent Sunday concerts.

The bishop said he’ll also miss the special bond between the congregants and Thompson, a “faithful servant,” and the only pastor the current church has known.

That said, Gohl added, closing one church in a saturated part of town will free up resources for young and growing congregations elsewhere in the area.

That process, he said, reflects perfectly the teachings of the church, which dates back far longer than the history of Saints Stephen and James.

“It’s a tenet of Christian faith that unless something dies, there is no resurrection or new life,” he said. “Sometimes churches outlive their season. Maybe now their season is to use their resources to bring about some newness to the city and the larger life of world.”

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