When members of a historic Ellicott City church were asked at a special renewal service last week if they were ready to continue their ministry with a new priest, they shouted, "We are!" with a thunderous enthusiasm that soared up to the church's cathedral ceiling.
With the ceremonial approval of the Rev. Henry Thomas Slawson III on June 17, St. Peter's at Ellicott Mills Episcopal Church celebrated its exit from three years in imperilment, a state of near-closure that had been declared in January 2012 by the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton.
The service of pomp and pageantry — with burning incense and holy water flung over the heads of the congregation — marked the 173-year-old church's return to a parish in good standing after years of internal problems and a double murder rocked its foundation and threatened to permanently close its doors.
"This church was doubly traumatized," said Sutton, who had placed St. Peter's under the diocese's control. "They were already dealing with [imperilment] and a change in church leadership, and then blood was spilled in the church building."
Five months before the fatal shootings, Sutton released the church's co-rectors from their duties and dissolved the vestry, an elected board of lay leaders, in order for the diocese to take control of the church, which has 225 members.
In his sermon, Sutton told the gathering of 110 parishioners that it takes "bold steps to change" and that "sometimes we just have to do what we've been called to do, even when there are no signs of life."
He commented later on the perseverance of the congregation as they faced twin tragedies.
"Death is never the last word and St. Peter's is an example of that," he said. "Positive things can happen after tragedy if people are determined."
St. Peter's emerged from imperilment just three months after the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Baltimore, Sutton said. He noted that about half of imperiled churches end up closing in the state's Episcopal diocese, which has 110 parishes.
According to diocese records, the concept of imperilment was introduced by Sutton after he became bishop in 2008 as a mechanism for implementing consultation and planning.
"It's an admission that they are in trouble and that's embarrassing to some," Sutton said. "But there were more than enough people at St. Peter's who could turn their crisis into a good story."
Imperilment was declared at St. Peter's in January 2012 due to insufficient operating funds and its inability to find lay leaders willing to govern.
Then on May 3, 2012 a homeless man who was a frequent visitor to the church's food pantry shot and killed two people in the church office. Douglas Franklin Jones shot church administrator Brenda Brewington, who died at the scene, and one of the church's co-rectors, the Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, who died two days later.
Afterward, Jones shot himself and was found dead by police in woods that abut the church grounds at Rogers Avenue and Main Street where he had been camping.
Fear for the church's continued existence was already palpable before the murders occurred. The two events combined to become almost too heavy a burden to bear, according to a church officer.
"Things were very grim with financial difficulties to the extreme and a great deal of infighting and mistrust within the congregation," said Katherine Schnorrenberg, junior warden of the vestry.
"We thought things were as bad as they could possibly get," before the fatal shootings, she said. "But we were so wrong."
After the murders, church members chose to continue holding services in their own building instead of accepting an offer to meet for a while at nearby St. John's Episcopal Church and that's when people began to move toward resolving past issues, she said.
"We pulled ourselves together and talked about what we could be," Schnorrenberg said. "St. Peter's is not the same place as it was, and we are who we are today because Brenda and Mary-Marguerite gave their lives unexpectedly and saved us."
Slawson, who prefers to be called Father Tom, had been working as a priest associate in Gulfport, Miss., when he was appointed as St. Peter's vicar soon after the murders took place. He assumed that position on July 1, 2012.
Sutton had chosen to name him vicar — which denotes a clergyman who stands in for the Bishop — instead of interim pastor, so that Slawson would be eligible to become rector if the congregation chose.
The congregation feels their new rector is a true match for their congregation.
"Father Tom is a very good listener and he lets lay people do their work. He makes us responsible for our own church," Schnorrenberg said.
Ray Powell said he and his wife, Rose, who had been lifelong Catholics, joined St. Peter's during the imperilment, which they weren't even aware of at first.
"We had no idea what imperilment even was," said Powell, a Jamaica native like his wife. "When we heard about it we thought, 'Imperilment? You guys?'
"The church's parishioners took a personal interest in us and that really resonated," said the Columbia resident, who said he had felt like a robot when he attended the Catholic Church. "Father Tom told us they needed fresh eyes, and they've adopted us and are like family."
Slawson, who officially assumed his duties in April, said later that the moment when the congregation roared their agreement of his ministry was "a little overwhelming and a bit humbling, too."
The ceremonial approval was scheduled to coincide with the commissioning of the vestry, which was held on a mid-week evening to suit Sutton's availability, he said.
"It was the tragedy of the murders that enabled the church to move forward," Slawson said. He noted that Will Brewington, husband of the late church administrator, maintains a connection to the church.