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St. Timothy's congregation keeps the faith

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Building a new faith community isn't easy, as members of St. Timothy's Church have found.

Since members of the formerly Episcopal congregation voted to join the Catholic Church in February 2013, they've lost their historic church and seen friends go their separate ways, all the while wondering when a permanent pastor would be assigned to lead them.

"It's been a tough year," said Emory Stagmer, a music minister and former elder in the Episcopal church.

"In some ways, it's been a little bit of a downtime," he added.

They miss their beautiful old stone church that dates back to the 1800s — and all the other facilities on the property — on Ingleside Avenue. They miss the outreach and community service programs and fellowship they participated in.

But the congregation continues to worship together, as they have for nearly 170 years.

And the members are looking forward, nevertheless. They've extended the lease on the stone chapel at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Catonsville where they've gathered regularly for 10 a.m. Mass for the past year.

And they plan to celebrate their 170th anniversary on Sept. 11. No firm plans, it was announced at the July 6 Mass, but parishioners were instructed to mark their calendars.

The presence of visitors is encouraging, too, says Nancy Bellis, of Catonsville. "We have visitors every week," she said. "That's very unusual for a church this small."

The congregation used to have a full schedule of events at their Episcopal church. Now, Sunday Mass is about the only time the congregation gets together. Attendance is small, usually a few dozen.

The congregation would like to return to the 12-acre property they've helped preserve since the church's founding in 1844. They want to resurrect the outreach and ministries they maintained there: food ministry, counseling services, the annual Christmastime "Night in Bethlehem" and the Lenten community suppers.

"That's one of the things that kept us strong," Bellis said.

Why couldn't Catholic and Episcopal congregations share the sanctuary, wondered Lydia Temoshok, who served on the Episcopal vestry. "What's wrong with that?" she asked, emphasizing that ill feelings had nothing to do with the vote to become Catholic. "Everyone would come back and support the church, keep the church up.

"I worry about it. We're renting this space [at St. Mark] when we could rent that space [on Ingleside Avenue]," she said.

They raised the funds to renovate the rectory and restore the church — and now worry that the unused building will be vandalized.

There's still a food pantry at St. Timothy's, which this congregation supports, but it's not the mission it once was.

A sense of community

A skate park on the property has been locked tight since the final service at St. Timothy's. The park, renovated in 2010 with $50,000 in all-weather skate obstacles, was one reason Temoshok, the mother of a skateboarder, joined St. Timothy's. "Now it's sitting there," she said.

Sharon Tillman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Episcopal Diocese, said no decisions have been made about the future of the Ingleside Avenue property.

Though they could move on, the congregation remains devoted to each other and to Catonsville. "All the stuff we did, we did for Catonsville," Temoshok, of Oella, said. "So much more could be done."

The congregation has relied on visiting priests for Mass since the Rev. Terry Sweeney, the Episcopal rector who led them as they discerned whether to join the Catholic Church, has moved away. When no priest was available on Easter, the congregation had to worship elsewhere.

A congregation with a strong lay ministry, they still need a priest for Mass and the sacraments. The Rev. Carlton Parker Jones, chaplain of the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, has been a faithful Sunday celebrant. The Rev. Al Scharbach, the pastor of Mount Calvary Catholic Church on Eutaw Street in Baltimore, a congregation that also separated from the Episcopal Church, has also helped out and invited the congregation to his church downtown.

Finding a new religious leader may take some time. But, said the Rev. Steve Sellers, director of communication for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the parish remains on the ordinariate's radar. "We're going to help them. We don't want them to feel like they're lost," he said.

Ideally, when an Episcopal community decides to join the Catholic Church, their pastor comes with them. In many cases, the priest then goes through the process to be ordained a Catholic priest.

"That didn't happen that way at St. Timothy," said Sellers. But, he said, "Monsignor [Jeffrey N.] Steenson is committed to them." Steenson serves as the ordinary — or head — of the governing body for Catholics with Episcopal backgrounds.

About 45 from St. Timothy's joined the Catholic Church — and, since then, some have joined other churches. "Some said this is too hard," Temoshok said, as she named members who have left.

The loss of fellowship is one reason for the departures, according to Bellis. "I really miss the fellowship we had," she said. "I might have to look for it somewhere else."

But then she quickly added, "I love the liturgy."

"We want to stay in the Catonsville area," said Margarita Ugarte-Caffyn, of Catonsville.

"We're holding on," she said. "We like the small parish because we get to know everybody."

The congregation's members remain firm in their decision, Temoshok said. "Everyone studied for a long time. It was six months before we made a decision. It was a heartfelt decision," she said.

And yet parishioners still treasure their Episcopal traditions.

Ugarte-Caffyn described how the Gospel is proclaimed in the center aisle rather than from the pulpit. "I like that the Gospel comes out to the people," she said. "That's a very Episcopalian tradition."

Stagmer said joining a Catholic parish would mean giving up the Episcopalian history. "We would lose our identity," he said, praising the traditional Anglican liturgy. "We would lose that option. That's got a lot of beauty, a lot to recommend it."

It's been hard, but members remain faithful — and hopeful.

"It's been an interesting year," Stagmer said. "It's the right choice."

"I think we have something unique to offer the community," he added.

"We were a wonderful community," said Temoshok. "We still are."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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