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Madonna church to celebrate 125th anniversary of sanctuary

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.

He is buried in the church cemetery, and his grave is under the spot where his pulpit was when he was minister.

Dr. Johannes J. Mol, the pastor from 1956 to 1962, studied ethics at Union Seminary in New York City with Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of most prominent theologians in the world in the 20th century.

"That kind of person has been coming to this church almost routinely," Sheffield said.

J. Russell Butcher was the pastor at Bethel from 1943 to 1948. His son, local artist Jim Butcher, lives in Bel Air, and Sheffield reconnected with him when trying to track down a picture of the older Butcher. The younger Butcher will be guest of honor at the celebratory dinner.

"It was neat making that reconnection," Sheffield said.

The third pastor, George Morrison Sr., who served from 1825 to 1837, ran a private school in Bel Air before he became leader of the congregation. While head of the school, one of his students who didn't like him, shot him. Medicine being what it was in those days, the bullet was never removed. Thirteen years later and by then the pastor, the bullet in Rev. Morrison's side shifted, and he died of a gunshot wound sustained years earlier.

Thomas S.C. Smith, who served from 1857 to 1864, was also first the superintendent of public education in Harford County.

The 125th celebration

The church is hosting a dinner Friday night that's sold out. It will feature entertainment by Deer Creek Chorale, the Harford-based chorus that practices in the church building.

Dennis Kirkwood, who is the youngest member of one of the founding families of Bethel Presbyterian Church and also is a former Harford County Public Schools teacher and administrator, will discuss the history of the church.

His family is one of many prominent Harford families in the congregation dating to before the sanctuary was built. The Streets, the Streetts and the Whitefords are among other familiar names associated with the church.

On Sunday, the entire congregation will celebrate the sanctuary's anniversary with a service at 10:30 a.m. The service and reception afterward, at about 11:30 a.m., are open to the public.

The Rev. Richard Sheffield, interim pastor of the church, said his sermon will focus on the history of the church.

"There will be a lot of elements to reflect 125 years," he said.

During the service Sunday, Sheffield will preach from the original church pulpit, which is in storage in the church.

The sanctuary was renovated in the late 1940s to early 1950s, when the pulpit, but not the pews, were replaced. The pulpit used today will be hidden by Victorian palm trees to evoke the era when the church was constructed.

Church members also are researching the history of the church and transferring the historical records to the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, a "major national archives," Sheffield said. A copy of the history also will be donated to the Harford County Historical Society.

The church is also preserving photographs of all its pastors, at least the pictures of the 23 of the 27 it has, and they'll be hung in the church.

"We want to preserve 244 years of paper, including the original deeds that are really in danger of crumbling because they've been stuck in a closet somewhere," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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