The church sits surrounded by hotels, an interstate highway, a convention center and a baseball park. Yet downtown Baltimore’s Old Otterbein United Methodist congregation endures. It is celebrating its 250th anniversary this month.
Daniel Fisher, a fourth generation member of Old Otterbein, recalls his grandparents, William and Cora Grammer, who moved to Baltimore from Petersburg, Virginia, in 1924 and lived in a house at 128 Conway Street near the church.
“My grandmother played with the minister’s children on the church property,” Fisher said.
“My family often reminisced about how much had changed around the church. The neighborhood surrounding the church was industrial up until the late 1960s. Across Conway Street from the church was the Heywood Wakefield Furniture Company and just down the street heading towards Charles Street was the Globe Brewery which produced Arrow Beer.”
By that time, the church had become established as a local landmark and lent its name to Otterbein, a neighborhood just to its south.
Fisher notes that Old Otterbein United Methodist Church is Baltimore’s oldest church building in continuous use. The building was built in 1785. The church that would become Old Otterbein was established on the current site in 1771.
The church bought the property from Cornelius Howard on Aug. 7, 1771 for 90 pounds. The church was originally known as the German Reformed Church of Howard’s Hill. The congregation initially erected a small log type church on the property.
Philip William Otterbein arrived in Baltimore in 1774 and took over as second pastor. After the Revolutionary War had ended, immigrants from Germany swelled the church rolls.
In 1785, the current brick church building was erected at a cost of $6,000 and Baltimore architect Jacob Small Sr. was hired to build and design a Georgian meetinghouse of generous proportions, Fisher said.
In 1789, the church added a two level square brick tower complete with an octagonal belfry capped by a tall weather vane. That same year the church’s bells were installed.
“The bells were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England ... They cast the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and numerous others,” Fisher said. “The bells have rung for the funerals of all four assassinated presidents, they sounded the alarm when the British landed at North Point in 1814 and when they sailed away in defeat. At a Ladies Aid meeting on Nov. 11, 1918, when word came that the Armistice had been signed, two ladies present ran to the belfry and rang the bells and of course they rang for the end of World War II.
“On September 11, 2001, a member of the church went over and rang the bells and opened the church for prayer,” he said.
Services were spoken in German until World War I.
In 1811, the parsonage of typical German architecture was erected for $6,000. Bishop Otterbein, then 85 years of age and in ill health, did not wish to leave his four-room cottage and directed that the new parsonage be rented and the money given to the poor.
“The Otterbein Church organ was installed in 1897 and is probably the last organ Henry Niemann built,” Fisher said. “Of the dozens of organs built by Henry Niemann in Baltimore, only six remain.”
For many years the church sold peanuts to fans going to baseball games as a way to raise funds for the upkeep of the church buildings and property.
“Many people refer to Old Otterbein as an oasis in the middle of Baltimore,” Fisher said. “As the surrounding area has changed over the past 200 years the church remains almost the same.”
The church will celebrate its 250th Anniversary at a 2 p.m. service Sept. 19.
The Rev. Bonnie McCubbin is Otterbein’s pastor as well as director of museums and pilgrimages for the Methodist Conference.
“Ours is an inter-generational congregation,” she said. “We’ve got a decent number of the University of Maryland Law School students and six different children too.
”My son is 3 and half and he likes to help serve communion,” she said.