There is nothing Ray Koontz likes more than attending Mass in the small stone chapel at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Hydes. The morning sun streams through the newly restored stained glass windows, creating patterns on the chapel's cream-colored walls.
On Sundays, Koontz and the other parishioners go to Mass at the "new" St. John the Evangelist church built in 1969. But Monday through Thursday, a small group of the faithful sits scattered among the wooden pews and soaks up the beauty and history of the 159-year-old chapel.
"It's absolutely priceless," said Koontz, 63, who was just 5 when his family moved to a house adjacent to the chapel. "It's absolutely magnificent."
Koontz became very familiar with the chapel, which holds about 100 people, during his days as an altar boy.
"I joke I hold the world record for serving Mass, since I lived so close," he said. "I'd be there when the other altar boys canceled or couldn't get there in the snow. That chapel is part of my childhood."
The chapel wasn't always the gem it is today. It was closed in the mid-1970s because its wooden floors sagged and the roof leaked. It wasn't safe and it wasn't needed since the new church held 700.
When that church was built, folks started referring to the 1855 church as the "chapel" to differentiate the two.
Not sure what to do with the vacant chapel, the church's pastoral council considered converting it into office space in the early 1980s. A new parish office was built instead but the chapel remained closed.
The transformation from deterioration to divine took place in stages during the past 21 years. A major renovation project in 1993 replaced the floor, rebuilt the chimney and added new pews, a porch, handicap ramp, ceiling fans and bell tower.
Since then, the chapel has gotten a new heating and air-conditioning system, the original slate roof was repaired and the front steps were rebuilt.
The most recent work was the restoration of 13 of the chapel's 14 stained-glass windows.
Rain seeped in over the years and the windows were in bad shape, said Monsignor Richard Cramblitt, who has been at St. John's for four years. "When that happens, the lead in the windows goes weak and the pieces of glass start to bow," he said. "It was time to fix them."
Epiphany Studios in Middletown, Va., did the work. Gene Higgins, one of Epiphany's owners, said his crews removed 10 windows from the chapel and completely rebuilt them in Virginia. Each window is 32 inches wide and 84 inches long, and features a geometric pattern containing 105 pieces of painted glass.
Epiphany reproduced each piece, hand-painted it and baked the glass in a 1300-degree oven. Personnel then reassembled the glass and sealed it with new lead.
"We try to retain as much of the original glass as possible, and with those windows, we were able to save some of the border glass," Higgins said.
Each border is a different color to represent liturgical seasons, Cramblitt said.
The main window over the altar features an image of St. John the Evangelist with an eagle. As one of the four writers of the Gospels, he is shown holding a tablet and a quill.
That window, 72 inches wide by 168 inches long, will be taken out in January and restored by Epiphany. Plans are to have it back over the altar in time for Easter 2015.
That should be the final piece in the preservation project.
"The chapel is right in the heart of the property here and it anchors the whole church property," Cramblitt said. "It is a little jewel with high ceilings that lift the spirit up."
Wood to stone
The original St. John's church — the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Baltimore County — began as a mission of St. Ignatius, Hickory in Harford County. A wood-frame church was built in 1822 on what is now Carroll Manor Road. It sat on the ridge that separated Long Green and Dulaney valleys, and was known as St. John's on the Ridge, according to a church history.
The church was destroyed by a fire in February 1855 that was caused by an overheated stovepipe. The pastor is said to have rescued some paintings, but church records were lost.
All traces of the wood church are gone , but its cemetery is still there. There is an ongoing project to clear brush from the original stones and keep a record of those buried there.
The location of a new place to worship was an easy decision after the Jenkins family, prominent in Long Green Valley, sold 2 acres on Long Green Pike for that purpose.
A Baltimore Sun article written years later noted, "Betsy Hillen Jenkins gave the land on the Jenkins Homestead where St. John's Roman Catholic Church now stands, and Mr. Philip Jenkins contributed the stone from the Sleepy Hollow quarries on the plantation."
Cramblitt said wagons drawn by four horses brought stone, said to be granite in a 1970s church history, from the quarry about a half mile away.
The stone church was built in an incredibly short time. St. John's history shows the cornerstone was laid on July 22, 1855, and the first Mass was said on Dec. 30 that same year. That history also states that after laying the cornerstone, Archbishop Francis Kenrick went to the Jenkinses' house, where he confirmed 25 people.
"This was a poor, rural parish, and it was unusual for a church to be made of stone back then," said Chris Deaver, an avid historian who is also director of adult faith formation at the church. "But since their first church burned and they had a quarry nearby, you can see why it's made of stone."
Over the years, a school operated intermittently. In 1947, the School Sisters of Notre Dame ran the school full time. In the mid-1960s, Koontz's family sold their house to the parish and it became a convent, then a place for parish meetings and other functions. The school's enrollment stands at 188.
The parish also continued to grow and now has 1,400 families in northern Baltimore and western Harford counties who put the church, chapel and school to good use.
"We love our buildings, but we are a community of people who carry forth the mission by focusing on evangelism, worship, faith formation and ourteach to the world," Cramblitt said.