After more than 200 years, St. Paul's white oak to come down

For more than 200 years, the massive white oak tree on the grounds of St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Old Frederick Road in Mt. Airy has been a meeting place for church gatherings, a source of community pride and identity, and a regional landmark.

On Friday, Nov. 4, it is scheduled to be chopped up into pieces, dismantled by a crane and shaved down to the ground, with only its extensive root system left behind in the soil.

The tree is not being attacked by outsiders, but brought to rest, so to speak, by those who care about it most — the leaders and longtime parishioners of St. Paul's, which dates to 1883 and has long used the tree as its symbol.

Their decision to remove the oak was largely based on a tree risk assessment performed Sept. 13 by professional arborists with nearby Mead Tree & Turf Care, who determined the tree is "suffering from excessive rot and poses a threat to the people and vehicles passing by."

The tree, recorded in the Maryland Big Tree Program by the state's Department of Natural Resources in 2008 as being 88 feet in height and almost 17 feet in circumference, is further weakened by an infestation of borers and a disease known as hypoxylon canker, the study found.

The report left the vestry no choice but to vote for the tree's removal, which it did unanimously on Sept. 15, said the Rev. Pat Drost, the church's interim rector.

"It was merciful in that it was clearly one way," Drost said, referring to the study's definitive stance on the tree's removal, which she said freed the vestry from agonizing over options.

One parishioner, Ron Alexander, likened the church's position to being at a dying family member's bedside and facing the words, "do not resuscitate."

"The tree was a gift to us," he said. "It was here before us and we were hoping it would be here long after."

That hope first began fading years ago, as the tree's health continued to decline despite various attempts by the church community to turn its fate around.

They had fenced it off more than a decade ago, installed a watering system, trimmed small branches and then larger branches as they died off, and even did deep root fertilizing, they said.

Nothing worked, and now the tree will be removed as soon as possible, they said.

"It's too high on the risk scale to keep trying these measures," said Pete McIntosh, the church's property warden and a member of the vestry. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."

The church parishioners — about 60 attend weekly masses — were notified by Senior Warden Jeff Spaulding in a letter dated Sept. 16.

"The demise of our hallowed Oak is a bit disappointing and sad — but as much a part of God's glorious plan as a fall sunset," Spaulding wrote in the letter.

Bob Mead, of Mead Tree & Turf Care, who longtime parishioner Polly Moore praised as being "far less than commercial and far more than cooperative" through the entire process, will supervise the removal of the tree.

Picnics and corn roasts

Once the tree comes down, the church plans to use the oak timber to create various mementos, including a large cross section of the trunk that will finally tell them just how old it was.

The rings will reflect a storied history.

Parishioner Lee Hajek, who fellow church members called the "lead tree hugger" and the oak's biggest advocate, said the tree always makes her reflect on the area's past.

"I can't help but think what else was going on out here in this farm area and how much history passed by on this road," she said, noting Old Frederick was once a main thoroughfare between Baltimore and Frederick.

"You often think back, if you could be part of that tree through history, what you would see!" she said, adding she imagines traveling families stopped for picnics under the oak's shade.

Moore, a member of St. Paul's since the 1960s, said she remembers traditional corn roasts every summer, where church members would pull their cars under the tree, set up picnic tables and have a blast.

"That was one of the big events," she said. "When things were more simple, you looked forward to big church events."

In more recent years, church youth and adult groups have gathered around the tree for forums and, once, for a "creation" retelling where everyone brought their pets, said Carrie Brown, another parishioner.

Then, suddenly, in the last few years, the tree took a sharp turn for the worse.

Moore, whose family owns Larriland Farm, said the tree's aging mirrors her own and that of other older parishioners.

"Now, everybody holds my hand as I go up the aisle. Two years ago, they didn't bother. It's the same thing with the tree," she said. "We looked at the tree and realized it was old, but by then the nursing home didn't do it any good."

All of it, though, is part of God's plan, she said.

"If you want to believe in God," she said, "the tree is a wonderful example."

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