The Church of the Ascension is an unremarkable Middle River landmark, just a squat, brick building on an isolated peninsula south of Martin State Airport. But for Episcopalians in eastern Baltimore County's Wilson Point community, the small church has been a fixture for generations — home to such cradle-to-grave memories as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
And on a street of mostly fenced-in front yards, the church's rolling lawn has served as an informal waterfront park to the entire neighborhood since aircraft pioneer Glenn L. Martin donated the property to the community 75 years ago. Residents walk their dogs to the tree-lined shore. A sliver of beach provides a popular spot for fishing. And a wooden bench perched amid a community garden beckons visitors to sit and gaze at the ducks on Stansbury Creek.
But these days the garden is dead, the creek is frozen and the church is locked. For two years the bucolic, nearly two-acre plot has stood at the center of a bitter property dispute in Baltimore County Circuit Court. It is a legal fight that turns on decades-old documents, fading memories and the intersection of civil laws and religious rules.
On one side is a congregation of fewer than 20 people represented by Towson lawyer Donna M.B. King, a sole practitioner. On the other is the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which has 108 congregations and is represented by Venable, a national law firm with hundreds of attorneys.
The dispute is playing out as the diocese is grappling with a major crisis: Its assistant bishop, Heather Elizabeth Cook, has been charged with manslaughter in the December hit-and-run death of cyclist Thomas Palermo in Baltimore. Cook is out on bail while awaiting trial.
Nationally, the Episcopal Church has been ensnared in a number of property disputes. Typically such fights are triggered by congregations breaking away over issues such as the denomination's support for same-sex marriage and gay clergy, experts say. The Maryland diocese experienced such a defection in 2010 when Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore voted to become Catholic. In that case, the diocese simply sold the building to the departing church.
The issue in the Middle River case is different, inflamed by local passions for a property that many in Wilson Point see as a tribute to Martin's benevolent legacy.
"There are some hard feelings because there are a lot of emotional attachments to the church and a love of that community," King said.
Ascension members allege in their lawsuit that the diocese unlawfully took the building by falsifying a deed and improperly seized $27,000 in church bank accounts. They say that on Feb. 24, 2013, a diocese official ended the final Sunday service by leading the congregation outside and locking the door.
It's been locked ever since.
Episcopal officials contend that the church is a subsidiary of the diocese, rather than an independent nonprofit. Therefore, the building, land and other assets belong to the diocese.
"The upset former members of this congregation believe I snuck them out of the building so I could lock them out," said the diocese's chief operating officer, Scott Slater, who presided over Ascension's last service two years ago. Not true, he said. Everyone knew it was the final Mass, and the door remained open for at least an hour afterward.
But at that point, according to Slater and the diocese's legal filings, the church's group of parishioners, called a vestry, lost the right to sue. "By closing [the church], that vestry doesn't exist any longer," he said.
Try telling that to Russell Harrington, 76, and Roger Copinger, 85.
Harrington said losing the church on Wilson Point Road has been like losing a neighbor he has known since 1949 — the year his family moved to the street. His son, daughter and grandchildren were all baptized at the church. He and his son had weddings there. And he and his wife mourned their parents at funerals held beneath the modest steeple.
"It's a big void," said Harrington, who restores antique toys for a living. "It's been a big part of our lives."
For him and fellow congregants, the diocese's motivation for what they have characterized in court papers as a "land grab" is obvious: "They want the money."
The property has been appraised at about $800,000.
Slater said Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, the diocese's leader, is taking appropriate steps to be a "good steward" of its resources, including closing parishes "when they're not demonstrating a model of sustainability."
"It's a fairly small piece of property. It's not worth a huge amount of energy," Slater said. "We have put more energy into it than we would have liked."
Following two years of dueling legal briefs, the two sides are getting closer to a resolution after a Baltimore County judge ordered them in June to negotiate. The pending proposal: Sell the land and split the proceeds.
Church members are unhappy but resigned to the outcome.
"There's probably a core of 10 to 15 families who have been there forever," said Copinger, a World War II veteran and a member since 1950. "They're not going to be thrilled with anything but a church being there."
From prospering to imperiled
The property was given to the community in the 1930s by Martin, whose legacy still rumbles and roars in the sky overhead and up the road at his namesake institutions, Martin State Airport and Lockheed Martin. During World War II, a church was built with supplies from Martin's company, and community members decided to be Episcopalians. The diocese also contributed money for construction, Slater said.
By 1948, the church had grown and the community group that had held the deed signed it over to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Copinger remembers those days fondly. He was 20 when he and his wife moved in 1950 into one of the "Martin houses" built for factory workers and veterans. "I paid $2,800," said Copinger, who was attending Towson State Teachers College on the GI Bill.
All five of his children were baptized and confirmed at the church. But in the decade that followed, with the Korean War over, aircraft manufacturing faltered. Many Martin employees moved out, leaving vacant homes and a smaller congregation.
In the late 1960s, the diocese grew concerned about the viability of the small, isolated Church of the Ascension, and pushed to move its parishioners to Holy Trinity Church in Essex.
But members of the congregation refused. In 1968, Copinger and the congregation formed a nonprofit Maryland corporation — The Church of the Ascension, Middle River — and negotiated a deal with the diocese to buy the land for $5, according to the Dec. 6, 1968, deed.
Copinger said the terms were clear: The church would follow Episcopal doctrine but operate as an independent nonprofit. In return, the diocese agreed not to try to close Ascension, provided names of approved preachers and recognized memberships, baptisms and marriages, members say.
After the 1968 riots in Baltimore, many city residents began moving to the county. And Wilson Point's inexpensive waterfront homes were a big draw, Copinger said. The influx of families brought new parishioners. And the little church went about its business for more than four decades without interference from the diocese.
With an aging, shrinking congregation and an inability to sustain a full-time pastor, the church was designated by the diocese as "imperiled."
That surprised Ascension members, who say they had no debt, $27,000 in the bank and rental income from a small house on the property.
Diocese officials have argued that a 1979 national doctrine declared that church properties were held in "implied trusts" for denominations. They said Ascension members agreed to abide by the rule by approving new bylaws in 2005 — a matter disputed by congregants.
The church was locked after the February 2013 service, and the bank accounts and incorporation documents were taken. Two weeks later, Bishop Sutton signed over the deed to the diocese.
Those steps rallied the community to support the church. The Wilson Point Civic Improvement Association agreed to provide financial support for legal action.
"The church has been an integral part of our community for decades," said association president Bob Bendler. "[Congregants] had no resources to move forward and challenge the diocese."
The group — which had provided volunteer maintenance work to the church for decades — will be repaid if the church prevails, he said. "If not, at least we have done our duty to make sure the church had its day in court."
More like 650 days have passed since the lawsuit was filed in April 2013.
The diocese's main legal argument has been that the court has no right to decide the case. Under canon law, Episcopal officials have the right to declare a failing church imperiled and close it, the diocese says in court papers.
King disagrees, saying the dispute has nothing to do with religious doctrine, but is fundamentally a dispute over Ascension's property.
Diocese officials have argued in court papers that Ascension remains part of the diocese even though incorporation documents declare it to be "an independent congregation." The documents say the church will follow Episcopal doctrines and its constitution and canons.
"An 'independent parish' remains subject to" church rules, the diocese argues.
Slater noted that Ascension has paid dues to the diocese and has sent representatives to the Episcopal convention — just like other churches. A truly independent Episcopal church, like one on Gibson Island, does neither, he said. Ascension was given a chance to generate more revenue, he added, but could not turn around like two other area churches that had been declared imperiled.
But members said the Church of the Ascension did not need to be turned around. They were happy supporting themselves as they had for decades.
The proposed settlement would return the $27,000 and restrict development on the property to homes.
Meanwhile, Ascension's members have found other places to worship.Harrington and his wife have not abandoned their Episcopal faith, but they have no plans to attend an Episcopal church. They go to St. Matthew's in Bowleys Quarter.
"It's Lutheran," he said. "That's where we'll probably stay."
1939 — Glenn L. Martin Co. deeds property to Stansbury Manor Inc. for the community's use. During World War II, the company provides supplies and soldiers help build a church on the property.
1948 — Stansbury Manor deeds property to Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
1967 — Diocese tries to get Ascension members to move to Holy Trinity church in Essex, but they choose to stay.
1968 — Diocese deeds property to Ascension, which becomesresponsible for operational costs.
2006 — Ascension begins using a part-time priest.
Jan. 2013 — Diocese informs church that it must close because it is an "imperiled" parish.
Feb. 2013 — Final Sunday service held. Diocese begins process to seize $27,000 in bank accounts and signs deed over to itself.
April 2013 — Congregation files lawsuit.