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St. Martin's mission is inspired by its namesake Church is dedicated to community service


On a recent afternoon, a clergyman in a black suit and a straw hat wandered the well-kept gardens around a Severna Park church, picking up stray pieces of litter.

Had he been mounted on horseback, the Rev. Wesley Smith might have invoked memories of his church's name-sake, St. Martin of Tours.

The name of the Episcopal church -- St. Martin's in the Fields -- always invokes questions, said Mr. Smith. Who was St. Martin? And where was the field? And what was he doing in it?

The short answer is that St. Martin was an early preacher of the Christian church who reportedly experienced conversion while dividing his cloak with a beggar. He likely encountered the beggar in a field.

The long answer is that St. Martin in the Field is the name of many churches honoring the saint, including one quite famous church in Trafalgar Square, London, says M. Garner Ranney, historian and archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of Baltimore.

The saint himself was St. Martin of Tours, France, born in about A.D. 315. The son of a soldier, he was brought up in Italy. He became famous for sharing his cloak with a naked beggar, whom he then recognized as Christ. Soon after, St. Martin was baptized. Representations of the saint in Europe generally depict him on horseback, a symbol of charitable deeds.

The legacy of the good St. Martin is carried on by the church today, say Mr. Smith and associate minister the Rev. John David van Dooren.

While Mr. Smith strolled the property, Mr. van Dooren talked about the church's mission: "This church has a very strong conviction not to lose sight of outreach needs. We've been a major influence in SPAN, the Severna Park Assistance Network, Sarah's House, and so on.

"The first Sunday of every month, the whole congregation brings groceries and money. In the middle of the service, the congregation comes forward and places bags of groceries on the altar. It's a beautiful mix of formal with the reality of everyday life."

St. Martin's memory reappeared in Anne Arundel County in 1954, when Mrs. C. T. Marston donated 8 acres adjacent to Benfield Road to build an Episcopal chapel in Severna Park.

The new vicar, the Rev. Lewis O. Heck, had served in military intelligence in the United Kingdom during World War II and had preached in English cathedrals. He connected the soy and corn fields here with St. Martin's fields and suggested naming the new church after the saint.

The London church, called St. Martin in the Fields, as opposed to the local church, St. Martin's in the Field, heard of the fledgling church and offered a cornerstone that had been salvaged when their building was bombed during the London blitz.

In Severna Park, the original church building is available to self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the Boy Scouts. "We call it a ministry of presence," said Mr. van Dooren. "That's outreach itself. It builds our trust in the community, and the community trusts us back."

The new building, constructed in 1989, reminds one of the inside of a seashell: pale sea-green tinted carpeting, pale walls, large windows that let in the light.

"It's built so you can see outside," said Mr. van Dooren, and indeed, that might be the church's motto.

The church extends its commitment to outreach even at risk to itself, Mr. van Dooren said. For example, St. Martin's does not have a large endowment to support it financially, as do many Episcopal churches. The budget stays balanced, but there's not much to spare. But they the church still spends money outside the congregation, for SPAN and other ministries, instead of holding on to it.

"Of all the churches I've been in, this one has the most earnest burden for that, to be useful in the community," said Mr. van Dooren.

The priest said he's also never seen a church as large as St. Martin's -- about 1,000 members -- that managed to retain a family atmosphere.

He attributes the warmth to intense involvement among lay people. "At many churches, it's like pulling teeth to get people to do things. Here, you call a meeting and you've got 100 people."

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