Bethel Presbyterian Church

Before the new sanctuary was dedicated on Oct. 17, 1888, members of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Madonna worshipped in a log building. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Sheffield / October 22, 2013)

The Rev. Richard Sheffield didn't know much about Bethel Presbyterian Church when he was hired two years ago as interim pastor, except that it seemed to him to be in the middle of nowhere.

In the last few years, as he's been preparing for the 125th anniversary of the church sanctuary, though, Sheffield has been going through the church's history and he's fascinated by all the interesting connections and stories he has found. Though the sanctuary is the focus of this year's celebration, it is a relative newcomer to the Madonna congregation, which is in its 244th year.

Sheffield said the church, through its history, has established "connections throughout the U.S., and the world, through its pastors and some of its members." The pastor went on to say: "And it has played an extraordinary part in the history of Harford County for years."

"This church is finding its way in a world that's changing continually. There's no doubt in my mind it will be serving the community long after all of us are gone," he said.

The sanctuary, which Sheffield calls "a gorgeous gem of a building," was dedicated Oct. 17, 1888. The church will celebrate Friday night with a sold-out dinner and a service followed by a reception Sunday.

The building

The sanctuary was built from rocks of Deer Creek granite quarried on Rock Ridge and hauled using horse and wagon by members of the congregation to the church grounds, according to a 200th anniversary compilation of the congregation history by Anne Lee Kirkwood Smith.

The 39-by-59-foot building with a 30-by-30-foot Sunday School room attached, had a total construction cost of $9,786.

The roof is made of Peach Bottom slate and is in as good a shape today as it was when it was built.

"The roof may weigh more than the building," Sheffield said. "It's extraordinary. It's a luxury that didn't need to be built that way. It's taller than the building."

"That roof will be there 125 years from now," he said.

The bell in the bell tower weighs 1,284 pounds and cost $223 when it was built by McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, a company that's still in business.

Until 2011, the bell was rung with a rope, but the swinging was a potential hazard to the roof, so employees at McShane, the same company that forged the bell, renovated the tower so the bell rings when an electronic clapper strikes.

"The clapper moves, not the bell," Sheffield said. "The bell was basically going to take the place down."

It's not a building you walk into and think it's a Presbyterian church, he said. Rather, it's a Christian church, with symbols of other faiths throughout, which is surprising given the era when the sanctuary was built and the antipathy that existed between Protestants and other faiths.

"There are indications in the building that are much more broad-minded than you would have expected in a rural community," Sheffield said. "Something enabled those farmers at the time to build something more broad-minded, more ecumenical than anyone would have thought possible."

History of pastors

He's also intrigued by the number of extraordinary pastors who have served at Bethel Presbyterian.

The church has had 27 pastors in its 244-year history and Sheffield pointed out interesting tidbits about some of them.

The church's second leader, George Luckey, was its longest-serving pastor.