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Mount Zion United Methodist Church closes its doors in Ellicott City

After being founded more than a century and a half ago, Mount Zion United Methodist Church in historic Ellicott City has closed.

The church was once a place for ex-slaves and their descendants to gather and practice their faith. But now, the physical church is no more.

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The church, which closed in December, was initially formed as a Bible study in 1860 on Marymont Street. It moved to the current building off Frederick Road in 1890 and attracted black residents who lived nearby in historic Ellicott City.

At its height, there were nearly 100 to 150 consistent members, said Mount Zion Pastor Wilhelmina Street. But regular membership had dwindled to 10 weekly members before the church’s closure.

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Tyrone Tyler, a member of the Howard County Historical Society who attended the church in his youth, said between 1970 and 2018, the people who regularly went to Mount Zion began to move to different areas.

“That, along with deaths of older members and children making different choices, these add up to church closings,” he said. “Younger people are not coming in the same committed way as their parents did.”

During a time when fewer young people are regularly attending church, St. John the Evangelist is among the churches that have introduced special ministries and programs to engage a younger generation and a new wave of immigrants.

Mount Zion had trouble attracting and maintaining a younger population. Simply put: Data shows young people do not go to church.

Twenty-seven percent of millennials say they attend weekly religious services, the 2014 Religious Landscape study found. Compare that number to the 51 percent of adults born between 1928 and 1945 who say they do, data from the PEW Reserach Center shows.

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The layout of the building also made it hard for its members to navigate, Street said. With the youngest attendee being 60 and the oldest at 101, accessing some rooms in the church proved to be difficult.

The sanctuary was upstairs while the restrooms were downstairs. When the church had events, members would sometimes have to park offsite and hike up the steep hill to get to the church’s main entrance if the parking area was full.

And, she added, funeral home directors often did not want to drive their vehicles up the steep hill to the church.

Street said she sought to overcome some of these challenges by holding virtual church service — having phone conferences for members to worship remotely.

“It’s almost like the church has been flipped on its ear. A lot of churches are dying and they don’t realize that to maybe turn it around to make a provision for them,” she said.

But this initiative, which began months before the church’s closure, was not enough to keep it afloat.

Street said the church will continue to meet in conference calls and at nursing homes in the historic district.

The empty building, however, is on the market. The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church is trying sell it, though there isn’t a selling price yet, conference spokesman Erik Alsgaard said in an email.

“The Conference Trustees are evaluating the plans for placing the property on the market in the near future,” he said.

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