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Church converting former funeral home into mission center

PropertyFuneral Parlor and Crematorium

A Christmas tree and candles adorned the new home of the Church of the Good Shepherd — but the congregation had to celebrate Christmas at its temporary worship space.

But sometime around Easter, repairs will be completed, the scaffolding gone and a new ministry center and worship space will open in the former Sterling Ashton Schwab Funeral Home on Edmondson Avenue.

Just don't expect steeples or a big cross to trumpet the Church of the Good Shepherd's presence, according to the Rev Martin Eppard, rector of the church.

Eppard, a Catonsville resident and a former member of St. Timothy's Church, is the founding pastor of the church, which formed in 1994.

The church combines the traditions of evangelical churches, Pentecostals' spontaneous prayer and the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Catholics and Anglicans.

It currently holds worship service in the Ellicott City VFW Hall and is planning to return the once-grand mansion to its former appearance even as it renovates spaces for worship and ministry.

"It's a work in progress," said Lane Knox, a parishioner serving as general contractor for the project. "We don't actually know when we'll move in."

In the meantime, candles light the multitude of windows. A Christmas tree graced one of the sunrooms last week. And statues of Mary and Joseph by the large entrance gateway into the courtyard greeted visitors.

Renovations to the Italianate-style mansion built in 1878 are now in full swing. A string of contractors has made its way to the building — as have the neighbors, noted Loretta Knox, Lane's wife and a professional decorative painter.

"People have been dropping by from all over Catonsville," she said.

Members of the Parr family, which owned the house and used it as a residence, have visited, bringing family photos to share.

Members of the Ashton family have stopped by as well, as have members of the Witzke family, a longtime Catonsville presence in the funeral home industry.

"They're happy to see it was being restored," Loretta Knox said.

The 7,000-square-foot house has 20 rooms on three floors, sits on 6 acres and includes a carriage house.

Plans are for house worship space just inside the front door, a commercial kitchen, fellowship space, a wellness center, offices, a food pantry, room for seminary classes "or whatever the needs are in the community," Eppard said.

"We can do different things as the need arises," he said.

The front room that will be used worship space is getting the early attention. Roof work, asbestos abatement and plumbing also topped the to-do list, Lane Knox said.

Future plans include converting the carriage house into a youth center.

"We are doing a lot to make it look the way it was," said Loretta Knox.

She cautioned that it won't technically be a historic restoration, though some things will be restored to their former luster. Hardwood floors will be refinished and the original banister has been restored, for instance.

She said she has found a Victorian marble mantelpiece to replace one of three that had been removed — and hopes to restore the others so they resemble the original mantels.

The building had sat vacant for more than five years and much of its components have disappeared. The marble mantelpieces and the antique doorknobs were removed. Vandals stripped the copper plumbing. An 1880 Weber piano, its wood finish gleaming even if it is in great need of a tuning, was left behind.

"They really messed it up," Eppard said.

In spite of the years of neglect, hints of the building's grandeur remain: high ceilings, parquet floors, glowing wood paneling in the library, light-filled sunrooms and plenty of gorgeous woodwork and cabinetry.

With every step of renovation, workers find something new to do.

But by the time the congregation gathers here for the first time, the ground floor should be usable, Loretta Knox said.

That is, of course, if they can meet all the fire safety requirements and finish all the carpentry, painting, plumbing and electrical work.

Loretta Knox said plenty of projects remain to be done in the future.

Room to grow

Eppard said the congregation was given a .75-acre lot in Columbia and had planned to build a church there.

"Everything we planned on just wasn't working out," he said.

At a retreat of the church's governing body, the Rector's Council, they decided to look for a new location. Someone suggested the old funeral home, which had been for sale since 2007. The location was closed when the business merged with the Witzke Funeral Home on Edmondson Avenue.

The idea gained traction, winning the approval of the council and the congregation.

"The church is very small," Eppard said, estimating it at about 50. "This would give it an atmosphere of a house church. It would keep that warmth and the intimacy we like in our congregation."

Eppard declined to say what the Catonsville property cost, but said the price was what the small congregation could afford — especially with the sale of its Columbia property.

After a year of negotiations, selling a lot and buying the Edmondson Avenue site, the congregation settled on the property Sept. 11.

"And that's when we started," said Lane Knox,.

Having a permanent home, Eppard said, is expected to help the congregation grow.

"We really don't expect it to stay at 50," Eppard said, noting that most parishioners live in Catonsville and Arbutus.

Eppard said he hopes to reach out to the community, partner with other churches and invite local teens to the new youth center once the congregation has moved to its new home.

"I think the congregation will grow," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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