In Ellicott City, a church of resurrection

When the Rev. Tom Slawson delivers the Easter homily at his hilltop church on Sunday, he says, he'll begin on his usual unconventional note.

Easter marks what Christians consider the most joyous event in history: the resurrection of Jesus. Services are celebrations.

But Slawson, rector of St. Peter'sr Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, will start by focusing on the lowest moment in the life of the man Christians believe was the son of God.

"If you don't encounter the cross, you won't grasp the full surprise of the Resurrection, and how it makes itself felt in our lives," he says.

If anyone should know resurrection, it's Slawson and his flock. Five years ago, their community was facing death twice over.

First, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland designated the parish as "imperiled," warning that if it didn't change radically, it would be shut down.

Then a mentally ill homeless man entered the church through a back door on a Thursday afternoon and shot the co-rector and an administrator to death.

"There's no preparation for that type of event for anyone, clergy or lay," says Craig Stuart-Paul, who was senior warden of the parish, a lay leader, at the time. "One cannot possibly imagine anything worse, any lower event than that."

But as the sun rises on Easter 2017, St. Peter's is celebrating a comeback. Its Sunday attendance and reputation have grown. Its financial health has stabilized. Howard County recently recognized the church for its help in the aftermath of the flood that devastated downtown Ellicott City last year. And as more, and younger, people find their way through the doors, its services and outreach ministries are bristling with an enthusiasm the church hasn't exhibited in decades.

With its 250 members, St. Peter's is far from the largest church in the diocese. But Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton — who made the "imperiled" designation in 2012, then removed it in 2015 — says numbers are no better an indicator of worth than they were in the days when one leader and 12 disciples changed the world.

"A church can have a thousand members in the pews and not be successful, or it can have 10 people and be successful," he says. "St. Peter's knows the power of love, they've come back from the dead, and they're sharing that message with everyone. It's absolutely one of our most successful parishes."

Charred bricks

Slawson, 61, a soft-spoken Tennessee native with a reputation for bringing people together, was serving in the Diocese of Mississippi five years ago when the Maryland Diocese contacted him about St. Peter's.

He accepted the vicar's job two months after the shootings. He brought with him an understated resolve, and a mantra that became the church's rallying cry.

He greets a guest in the silence of the St. Peter's chapel, an intimate, wood-paneled worship space a few feet from the scene of the killings in 2012.

"We're a resurrection people," he says.

In some ways, the church has always battled to stay alive.

It was founded on April 15, 1842 — 175 years ago this weekend — when a priest named Alfred Holmead came to what was then Ellicott Mills to become chaplain at the nearby Patapsco Female Institute, a finishing school.

Holmead saw the move as a chance to start an Episcopal parish for the mill workers in the village, according to a history of the church by former member Dick Mitchell.

Situated in what is now historic downtown Ellicott City, the parish was so humble it couldn't afford a full-time rector for half a century, and didn't hit the 100-member mark until the 1890s.

Katherine Schnorrenberg, a member since 2002, has studied that history extensively. She says the church has always represented a blend of cheerful eccentricity and monetary uncertainty.

"St. Peter's has teetered on the edge of financial instability since its founding," she says. "Its history has always been kind of a hoot."

That was certainly the case between the 1920s and the 1940s, when the diocese fired and rehired its irascible rector, the Rev. Julius Velasco, several times.

The building burned down in 1939, and Velasco used part of a meager insurance payout to have many of the charred bricks carted uphill to a parish property on Rogers Avenue, where they became part of the foundation of the new church.

The burned bricks are still visible there.

"When you think about it, it's quite amazing St. Peter's is still here," says Stuart-Paul, a member since 2000. "Look at the history. It has probably been resurrected five times."

It's hard to say when the most recent near-death experience began.

Christians create churches — in theory, at least — as outposts from which to spread Jesus' message, including his radical charge that his followers practice forgiveness and love their enemies.

But when they falter and their less noble traits emerge, a church can founder and fail as surely as a business or any other institution.

One parishioner recalls a slight. Another seethes over a parish decision. Others fail to overcome a personality clash.

And as factions begin to squabble, meetings to turn into arguments, and benefactors begin to reconsider their generosity, spiritual malaise can become financial emergency.

That's what happened at St. Peter's, members say, in the period leading up to 2012, when the church had to announce it could no longer support its co-rectors, pay its annual diocesan fee, or find enough candidates to stock a vestry, the panel of lay members who help run Episcopal parishes.

When Sutton looked at St. Peter's then, he says, he felt like a physician with a patient in critical condition.

"Nobody wants to go through the pain of radical surgery," he says. "But if you're going to die without it, your perspective tends to change," he says.

He declared "imperilment" for one of the few times in his career. Schnorrenberg, currently junior warden, remembers the announcement all too well.

"We were told there are two choices: You will recover or you will close," she says. "And to be honest, I couldn't see a way for us to recover."

Scrubbing the stains

Some Christian theologians believe God sent his son into the world to preach and be crucified. His resurrection would give humanity a chance to reconcile with the divine.

Others say God sent Jesus to teach people new ways. But those very people, being self-interested and sinful, took it upon themselves to kill him.

Either way, Slawson says, it took the crucifixion to reignite life.

"Without his death and resurrection, there would not be this community of faith we call Christianity," he says.

The parish he leads is a little like that.

He had served in Mississippi for nearly 30 years, half that time as a rector building a parish in Jackson, when he got a call from an old friend, the Rt. Rev. Joe Burnett, then assistant bishop of the Maryland Diocese.

The diocese was looking for new leadership at St. Peter's.

"I had always worked in more or less stable situations, and I saw it as a meaningful challenge," Slawson says in his peaceable drawl.

He was still considering his options when tragedy hit Ellicott City.

Parishioners say years of infighting had diminished St. Peter's dedication to community service, but the church continued its ministry to the homeless.

A man named Douglas Franklin Jones, who lived in the woods on church property, was one who often made use of its open-door food pantry.

But when Jones began showing belligerence to staffers, the Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn asked him not to return.

Kohn, 62, a lifelong champion for the poor, and parish administrator Brenda Brewington, 59, who had once worked in the preschool, were at work on Thursday, May 3, 2012, when Jones, 56, entered with a gun.

A custodian discovered their blood-covered bodies that evening. Police later found Jones in the woods, dead by suicide.

Stuart-Paul got the news at his son's baseball game. He sped over to find the place swarming with police, and he remembers the "bizarre" sight of hazmat workers, police cars and TV news crews dominating the grounds for days.

As soon as they were allowed in, Stuart-Paul, Schnorrenberg and others got to work.

They scrubbed bloodstains from floors, washed fingerprint dust from walls and replaced all the locks a SWAT team had broken, including those that historically secured the columbaria — drawers containing parishioners' remains — inside the church.

Then diocesan officials canceled the church's services the following Sunday.

The well-meaning gesture struck some as the final indignity.

"Never again will I say, 'Things can't get any worse,'" Schnorrenberg says. "I now realize they can."

Rising waters

Sutton says he knows that not everyone is with him on this in an age of declining religious faith, but he's "absolutely certain" he'll live beyond his death.

Christians believe this, he says, because Jesus died, was sealed in a tomb for three days, then rose again.

"Sometimes situations get hard," he said. "But it's central to the Christian faith that we don't believe that death is the last word."

When St. Peter's parishioners told him they were determined to hold their Sunday service as planned on May 6, 2012, he remembers, it was clear they had seized on that concept.

If they couldn't host worship, Stuart-Paul says, what purpose did they serve?

This kind of tragedy, he says — borne of illness and violence — was "something we must beat. If you can't beat it in church, where can you beat it?"

Schnorrenberg says their goals suddenly came clear.

"The death on our property of two people — that wiped away all the stupid, all the infighting, all the nasty," she says. "Those didn't matter any more."

The church was so packed that Sunday she had to run off extra programs. Members who had quit returned. Singing its best Easter music, the choir brought hundreds to tears and — miracle of miracles — most stayed after the service to talk.

"It was sad and happy all at the same time," Schnorrenberg says. "If God can be seen, he was seen at that service, because we wanted to be there, because we insisted on being there. We wouldn't be run out by death and violence and anger."

When Slawson arrived, he built on the feeling. He asked the parish to gather and redefine its mission, and found a fresh spirit of cooperation.

They settled on four priorities: building and retaining a full church, providing facilities for community involvement, growing with children and young families, and expanding community outreach.

Over the next four years, St. Peter's added new ministries to the homeless, saw its building space in use by community groups nearly every night, raised its average Sunday attendance from a low of 35 to more than 80, and left itself open to lending a hand where needed.

The new attitude became a lifesaver last summer.

On July 31, the day after a flash flood devastated Main Street in Ellicott City, collapsing buildings, sweeping away cars and killing two, Slawson headed into town and met with all the uniformed workers he could find.

The parish ended up offering its premises as a base of operations for county officials, residents and emergency workers, leaving the place buzzing with activity for three weeks.

Lawrence Twele, head of the county's economic development authority, was on the scene daily throughout the ordeal.

The church "provided air conditioning for the hot and tired, power to keep phones running, food for the hungry and drinks for the thirsty, and did it all without being asked," he says. "The generous spirit they embodied ... defines what it means to truly be a pillar of the community."

This month, the Howard County Association of Community Services recognized St. Peter's effort with a humanitarian award for collaboration in public service.

St. Peter's isn't where it wants to be just yet. But the parish is now in a position to pay its bills, has a full vestry and a new set of bylaws, and by all accounts has a completely different feel than it did five years ago.

The church won't hold its 175th anniversary celebration — a big-top dinner and auction — on its birthday, but on the night of May 6, the Saturday closest to the date on which Kohn and Brewington were killed.

To Schnorrenberg, the timing is right for the Easter season, and for a church she hopes will be around for a few more centuries.

"The tragedy of St. Peter's is that those murders should never have happened," she says. "But having happened, we had two choices as to how to react. We chose the one that said their deaths need to mean something. And now we're a church again."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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