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Oella's historic Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrates special anniversary

Charles Matthews, 69, of Halethorpe, stands outside Mt. Gilboa AME Church in Oella, where he has worshiped since he was 12. The congregation is celebrating the 200th year of Mt. Gilboa, believed to be the oldest African American church still in use in Baltimore County.
Charles Matthews, 69, of Halethorpe, stands outside Mt. Gilboa AME Church in Oella, where he has worshiped since he was 12. The congregation is celebrating the 200th year of Mt. Gilboa, believed to be the oldest African American church still in use in Baltimore County. (Lorraine Mirabella / The Baltimore Sun)

The gray stone church in Oella with a pointed steeple has services on Sundays, a dedicated band of members and roots stretching back to the late 18th century, when a landowner’s widow gave the land to her former slaves.

On Saturday, the congregation of Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated a milestone, the bicentennial of its association with the A.M.E. church. Mt. Gilboa, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is believed to be the oldest African-American church still in use in Baltimore County.

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“Mt. Gilboa has remained that kind of place of stability and worship for the community. Its been a social center, historically, for the African-Americans in that community,” said the Rev. Dr. Anita J. Gould, who has worked to strengthen the church’s ties to the community since arriving as pastor three years ago. “We’re more than a museum.”

The church of about 30 members held a bicentennial banquet Saturday in Windsor Mill, where they expected to draw more than 100 people, including Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz and other county and state officials.

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It was actually just over 201 years ago when Mt. Gilboa became part of the A.M.E. church. The A.M.E. had acquired the Mt. Gilboa property and, during an annual conference in Baltimore on April 12, 1817, appointed a pastor for the church in western Baltimore County. The current stone building on Westchester Avenue was built by free black people in 1859, replacing a log chapel on the site. The building’s lower-level served as a one-room school, possibly until the early 1900s.

In the early 1900s black and white, young and old and the sick of Baltimore crowded into the Christ Institution on Ensor Street on Sunday nights, ready to be cured by the church’s founder, Dr. George Kennard.

Charles Matthews, 69, of Halethorpe, has worshiped at Mt. Gilboa since he was about 12. He grew up in Oella, a small, historic mill town on the Patapsco River, where he worked during the 1960s at the former W.J. Dickey and Sons textile factory. He sang in the church’s junior choir as a teenager.

“It was somewhere where everyone came and gathered,” Matthews said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Ray S. Clark, a member and a trustee of Mt. Gilboa, is one of the newer members. He grew up attending Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore but began looking for a new church three years ago after moving to Baltimore County.

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“Even though I’d been past the church a thousand times, I never stopped in,” said Clark, of Woodlawn, who is retired from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “So I eventually did stop in, and once I started going I was really impressed with the pastor and the history of the church. It just pulled me in. It was just meant for me.”

Bowen's Chapel, a one-room schoolhouse and church in Carroll County, is at the center of a legal dispute, a clash between the descendants of the former slaves who erected the building in 1867 and the small, Delaware-based Christian denomination the descendants once paid to provide them with pastors.

Clark felt a connection to the history because he had volunteered for years at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, a 142-acre Baltimore County park dedicated to preserving and commemorating the history of Banneker who was born in Baltimore County in 1731 to a free African-American mother. Banneker is known as a mostly self-taught mathematician, astronomer, almanac writer, surveyor, abolition advocate and naturalist during the late 1700s. It is believed that Banneker worshiped at Mt. Gilboa.

The land for Mt. Gilboa was bequeathed to former slaves by a widow, Mary Williams, in 1786. At some point, the log chapel known as the African meeting house or slave meeting house was built on the site. It became the only place in the area where slaves could worship, get an education and be buried.

The tiny, wooden Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church in western Baltimore County was in danger of collapsing after being abandoned decades ago. Then preservationists and historians stepped in, secured grant money and set about rescuing the century-old church. Now the restoration is almost complete, and the building will be used as a meeting space and museum for sharing African-American history in the community of Granite.

Carolyn Leigh has belonged to Mt. Gilboa since 1994. Before that, she used to take her grandmother, who lived on Oella Avenue, to church there.

“There are not too many that live in Oella who come to the church anymore,” Leigh said noting that the church now draws members from outside the area. Often they come, she said, because “they like a smaller church, because you feel like a family. It’s real intimate, and I think we’re a close family.”

Members volunteer each year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, putting together food baskets to give to needy people in the area, she said.

“This is a very exciting time for us at Mt. Gilboa, with the history of the church,” Leigh said. “We are thankful we have a church we can go to and worship.”

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