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'The little church that could' in Columbia to celebrate 50 years

'The little church that could' in Columbia to celebrate 50 years
The Rev. Claire Matheny stands inside Kittamaqundi Community Church. The church, located in a former carriage house where thoroughbreds were kept, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

An enduring reverence for the idealistic principles that propelled master planner James W. Rouse to create a city founded on racial and socioeconomic equality permeates life in Columbia.

Nowhere is that more apparent, perhaps, than at Kittamaqundi Community Church — which its 69 members like to call “KC” — as it celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent, ecumenical Christian community open to all.

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The church in historic Oliver’s Carriage House in Town Center owes its existence in large part to Rouse, who was a founding member.

But as members continue to mark their milestone year with themed worship services that will culminate in a Jubilee Homecoming Festival on June 9, the legacy of Rouse’s first wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Rouse, also looms large.

It was Libby Rouse who urged her husband to import to Columbia the ecumenical concepts of Church of the Saviour, which the couple had been attending in Washington, said Pastor Claire Matheny, who came to KC as enabling minister on July 1.

“Libby especially liked the cutting-edge feel of a coffeehouse church” and felt strongly that Columbia needed its own version, said Matheny, 37.

The Carriage House at a celebration to mark the building renovations at Kittamaqundi Community Church coming to a close in 1975. The church is about to celebrate its 50th year.
The Carriage House at a celebration to mark the building renovations at Kittamaqundi Community Church coming to a close in 1975. The church is about to celebrate its 50th year. (Courtesy photo / Wally Howard)

The Rouses were among the founding group that formed Kittamaqundi Community Church, with approval from the Church of the Saviour council, by holding its first public worship service on Jan. 5, 1969, at Kings Contrivance Restaurant, the pastor said.

The others were Neal and Normie Harris, John and Dede Levering and Jane Mason.

“It was a happy, free-love sort of time in the ’70s when people were pushing boundaries,” said Matheny, who lives in Running Brook with her husband, Adam Noyce, and their two kids.

Kittamaqundi Community Church was an offshoot of the Columbia Work Group that James Rouse had assembled, according to Libby Rouse, who returned to the church in 1994 to give a speech on its origins for a 25th anniversary celebration.

The couple, who eventually divorced, had stopped attending the church they helped create after about five years.

James Rouse formed the work group “to brainstorm, discuss and enlarge upon the ideas that he and I had discussed over the previous 10 years for the building of a new town … one that could serve as a possible solution to the many problems of our inner cities,” Libby Rouse said.

She told the gathering how Jim had begun reading excerpts to her from “Call to Commitment,” which tells the story of the founding of Church of the Saviour, during the couple’s morning scrambles to get themselves and their young kids out the door.

Intrigued by what she’d heard, she read the book by Elizabeth O’Connor and soon insisted they go together to check out the church. That set the wheels in motion for what ultimately became KC Church.

In December 1969, they began holding services at Oakland Manor, a manor house built in 1811, “because so many people wanted to worship with us,” she said.

“Those were the days of Camelot,” Libby Rouse told the crowd. “And when the Church of the Saviour saw what they had spawned, their council legitimized us as one of their mission groups.”

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The church contracted with the city of Columbia in 1970 to purchase Oliver’s Carriage House, then a barn on the Oakland Manor plantation where thoroughbreds had been raised. Members set their sights on a massive, do-it-yourself renovation of the unique stone structure.

Worship continued at Oakland for three years before moving to the current building in 1972 and members began working on the building the next year.

KC held its first service in the newly revamped space on Easter Sunday 1977.

The building was open from the ground to the rafters when it was purchased, so a floor was added during the building’s overhaul to create a second-floor sanctuary space, Matheny said. Church offices are housed in horse stalls on the ground floor below.

Matheny describes KC as “progressive and open to all.”

The church’s website states that “people of all races, ethnicities, political views, sexual orientations, religious and educational backgrounds, and physical abilities” are welcome.

“There’s a delightful imperfection to worship service and a deep level of improvisation, and we just flow and adapt,” Matheny said.

Jack Dunlavey, who joined the church in 1969, said he values that openness and flexibility.

“I was coming out of Catholicism and here was a church where people sat around tables in a coffeehouse setting,” he recalled. “I found that very freeing.”

While Dunlavey didn’t come to KC because of the Rouses, he did get to know them.

“That was a rich period [in the church’s life] when they were attending,” he said. “Libby was a big part of creating Columbia and I often say she’s a forgotten person” in the planned city’s history.

Dunlavey, who married his wife Carol at KC Church 40 years ago, is the artist behind the unique 3-foot-by-6-foot metal cross that sits on the fireplace hearth in the church’s sanctuary. He created it by welding together tools and bits of metal that members unearthed during renovation.

A retired engineer who is now 76, he said his commitment to KC has deepened over five decades.

A celebration to marking Kittamaqundi Community Church building renovations coming to a close in 1975.
A celebration to marking Kittamaqundi Community Church building renovations coming to a close in 1975. (Courtesy photo / Wally Howard)

“This is such a rich community and I don’t intend to leave it,” he said. “It’s my home.”

Ken Katzen and his wife, Harriette, joined the church in 2003.

“We tried KC and discovered that everything about it was unique,” he said. “What appealed to us was that they welcomed questions more than answers.”

Katzen said he likes to calls KC “the little church that could.”

With 69 members and a pool of 115 regular attendees, “it’s like a little village and that’s part of its strength,” he said.

“KC tends to appeal to creative people and we’re famous for violating our own rules,” said Katzen, who has been preparing a talk on the indigenous people who once walked the land and the enslaved people who toiled on the Oakland Manor plantation.

While the church is open to all, “We’re not for everybody,” he said of the call-based congregation. “There are rituals [in most churches] for a reason; they bring definition and comfort.

“Change is hard work, but there’s a willingness here to say it’s worth it to be more inclusive,” Katzen said.

KC leadership is inviting all people with a connection of some kind to the church to return for the catered homecoming celebration on June 9, Matheny said.

“We just want everyone to come back and feel grounded here again,” she said.

For more information on Kittamaqundi Community Church, a listing of upcoming themed Sunday services or to RSVP to the homecoming birthday party, go to kc-church.org.

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