The centuries-old church affectionately known as "Old Brick" is far from imposing. It more closely resembles a one-room schoolhouse than it does the newer, larger building that has housed its congregation since the 1990s.
Yet Old Brick's historic role as a witness to the development of Howard County and Columbia looms large in the hearts of many, and has inspired its congregation at Christ Episcopal Church to restore the red-brick building on what is now Oakland Mills Road to a close facsimile of its original.
Six years in the making, the just-completed renovation of Old Brick will be celebrated Oct. 16 as parishioners and visitors alike step back in time to the early 1800s and reimagine the rugged countryside that was a precursor to Howard County's founding in 1851. Equally rugged pioneers toiled to assist in the construction of one of the first Episcopal churches built in the state after the Revolutionary War.
The public is invited to join the congregation in marking the 200th anniversary of Old Brick's consecration by attending the Oct. 15 world premiere of the "Old Brick Oratorio" by the Columbia Pro Contare as well as the special Sunday worship service. Consecrating a church is the act of blessing it and making it holy.
"I consider us to be the spiritual descendants of the people who were here before us," said Jenifer Johnson, church sexton and overseer of the project along with Friends of Old Brick. "And as much growth as Howard County has seen, we must preserve these historical sites in order to learn about our past."
Members of Maryland's most renowned families — such names as Dorsey, Hammond, Ridgely, Snowden, Shipley and Owings — were worshippers at Old Brick, making the church a vital cog in county history and not solely a venerable site for Episcopalians, she said. The church is also the longest continuously serving religious structure in Howard County, she said.
"We're stewards of history," said Johnson, who was honored last month with one of four awards given by Preservation Howard County for her coordination of Old Brick's preservation. While stained-glass windows, original pale-blue interior walls, broken trusses and other original elements have been restored, the brick floor installed in 1958 was not replaced and baseboard heating remains in use.
"Churches in the earliest days were not just places of worship, but served as community gathering places and places to vote and hear the news," Johnson said. "Howard County has this treasure, and we're responsible for its upkeep."
The renovation was made possible by grants from Preservation Maryland and Preservation Howard County, and the 1,000-member congregation and individual donors have paid the remaining $200,000 tab, she said.
The church's roots actually date back 300 years to a chapel erected about 1711 on a 2-acre plot as part of a tract called New Year's Gift, according to a plaque erected on the site by the Maryland Historical Society.
Referred to as St. Anne's, Annapolis, it was called a "chapel of ease" because it provided a closer place to worship than in the city of Annapolis, whose distant location required local churchgoers to set out the day before in order to arrive in time for Sunday services, records show.
The same devotion that Old Brick instilled in Richard Owings — who owned the Simpsonville Mill and cleared a dirt road in the early 1800s to connect his property to Christ Episcopal Church — has helped guide current members in their restoration efforts.
"A lot of us were upset that Old Brick was in the condition that it was," filled with file cabinets and other furnishings and in need of attention, said Tim Beaty, chair of Friends of Old Brick and a member with his wife, Sherry, since 1972.
During an earlier period, when worship attendance was poor, hay was stored in Old Brick and the building "fell into ruin," he said. But it was never closed, and weddings, funerals and Thanksgiving Day services have often been performed within its four walls with "a little neatening up" beforehand.
Today, the 24-by-36-foot church built on the same footprint as a replacement for the chapel is just yards away from busy Oakland Mills Road.
The Rev. Richard A. Ginnever, rector of Christ Episcopal Church for 10 years, described the planned re-enactment of Old Brick's consecration in 1811 as "a day filled with history, celebration and remembrance as we rededicate ourselves to future generations."
On Oct. 16, the original words of the Right Rev. Thomas John Claggett, the first Episcopal bishop of Maryland and Old Brick's second rector, will again fill the 125-seat church on the date that they were originally pronounced in 1811.
Those in attendance will then walk alongside the centuries-old cemetery to "New Brick," the affectionate name for the more modern, 400-seat Christ Episcopal Church that replaced its cousin for regular services beginning in 1993.
With the help of the "Old Brick Oratorio" — being performed once for church members and the next night in a public concert — participants will relive 200 years of history.
The composition is "a reflection of the political surroundings of the time" and is roughly written in chronological order, said composer Tom Benjamin, a semiretired professor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. The Columbia resident has written a number of pieces for Columbia Pro Cantare over the past 20 years.
The oratorio, defined as a large musical composition incorporating an orchestra, choir and soloists, was written over the course of two years. It begins with the early years of the American Revolution and continues through the Civil War, the beginning of the 20th century and the founding of Columbia, among other notable periods and events, Benjamin said.
"The oratorio is written to appeal to Episcopalians, and on some levels it is Old Brick-specific," he said. "But the issues [it covers] are much larger.
"There are also several traditional hymns, like 'Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past' and 'Amazing Grace,' that the audience gets to sing along with," he said. Portions of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman are referenced through narration in the 75-minute performance.
Frances Dawson, who founded Columbia Pro Cantare and is a member of Christ Episcopal Church, described Benjamin's oratorio as "very joyful and inspiring."
"You don't have to be a church person to find meaning in it," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun