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Burmese church buys former Wesley Memorial building in Westview

This building that formerly housed the Wesley Memorial Methodist Church at 5602 Johnnycake Road was sold in December to the Chin Mission Baptist Church for $2.7 million.
This building that formerly housed the Wesley Memorial Methodist Church at 5602 Johnnycake Road was sold in December to the Chin Mission Baptist Church for $2.7 million. (Submitted photo)

The Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church on Johnnycake Road has been vacant since 2011.

But the 30,000-square-foot building near the Baltimore National Pike intersection will soon be occupied after the Chin Baptist Mission Church purchased the building for $2.7 million.

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The sale was finalized on Dec. 17, according to Larry Lichtenauer, a spokesman for NAI KLNB, a commercial real estate services company with headquarters in Towson that brokered the deal.

According to its website, the Chin Baptist Mission Church was established in 1997 by seven men who resettled in the Washington, D.C. area from Burma (Myanmar).

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It has about 500 members with a congregation that is "increasing, not very fast, but slowly," said Church Pastor Rev. Sui Hliang Chorei.

Chorei said refugees fled Myanmar because there was "religious persecution of Christianity."

"The country [tried] to make Buddhism the country religion," Chorei said. "We just want freedom in our own religion in what we worship."

Chorei said church services will be offered in one of the Chin dialects of Burma, but may eventually be offered in other languages.

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There is a Burmese community near the church.

Approximately 900 Burmese refugees have been resettled in the Catonsville area by the International Rescue Committee, said Kevin Meadowcroft, community integration and external relations manager for the organization.

In 2011, the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church was forced to close its doors for good, due to its dwindling membership, said Stephen Ferrandi, director of land residential brokerage at NAI KLNB.

The church, with a capacity to seat 600, had roughly 100 members when it closed, Ferrandi said.

On Dec. 31, 2012 while the church was empty, vandals damaged the building sometime between Christmas and New Year's Eve, according to Barbara Bindon, director of Trinity Management, the property management division of NAI KLNB.

"They ripped out every piece of copper in the building and flooded the basement and parsonage," Bindon said. "They went so far as to pull out all of the fluorescent lights."

Bindon said vandalism is a common problem in vacant church buildings.

"When a church closes, people realize it," Bindon said. "It has been extremely common, especially in the last two winters."

Bindon explained that many mainline churches with multiple vacant properties in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. regions have a difficult time keeping an eye on the properties.

About $200,000 of work was required to repair damage to Wesley Memorial before it was put up for sale, Bindon said.

Arnold Goering, 87, president of the Citizens on Patrol for the East Catonsville Manor Community Association, said his group was "quite active in helping the church raise money to support their needs," through breakfasts, yard sales and other events.

The last pastor at the church was Rev. Robert Walker, an African-American, said Robert Shindle, archivist and director of the United Methodist Historical Society/Commission on Archives and History of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

"Historically, the church was white and after the conferences merged, it became desegregated," Shindle said.

According to a history of the church provided by Shindle, the church was the result of a merger of two existing Methodist churches in 1953 and was christened in honor of the 250th birthday of Methodist founder John Wesley, who died in 1791.

Ferrandi, who specializes in church sales, said many of the mainline churches that were some of the oldest, most influential Protestant branches have failed to thrive because they didn't welcome members of surrounding communities into their church.

For example, Catonsville was a historically white community, and as the community grew more diverse, the church stayed white, Ferrandi said.

They were also built at a time when people walked to church, and as cars became the transportation of choice, fewer people would walk to their local church, he said.

"The problem that you have with churches is that you can drive anywhere," Ferrandi said. "You have people who will jump in the car to travel to other neighborhoods."

Occupancy of the church is "needed, whether it would be another congregation or a general commercial organization, who will work with us in the community," said Goering, who has lived in the community since 1983.

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