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The place where they spent a lifetime of Sundays is now deconsecrated ground.

Members of the tiny Sexton United Methodist Church dismantled the altar yesterday and sang the last hymn as the congregation of the 128-year-old church in Morrell Park disbanded.

"I've been really dreading this day," said Marie Grimes, 74, who remembers when 125 people packed the wooden pews four times each Sunday. "This was the center of our life."

That was 30 years ago, when members numbered more than 500 and everyone in the quiet Southwest Baltimore neighborhood gravitated toward the pastors, the Sunday School, the ham and oyster dinners.

On its last day, roughly 50 people filled the red brick church at 1721 Sexton St., slightly more than the regular Sunday attendance that included Mrs. Grimes and 25 to 30 neighborhood friends.

The pull of this church was still strong even in its last hours. The parishioners are so familiar that they know the names of each other's cousins, so old that they know who's who in a 1935 photograph of the men's bible group, so close that when a visitor asks what they think about the church closing, they turn to each other and say, "You tell her how I feel."

"The church is not a building," the Rev. E. Dwight Byrne told them in his last sermon. "It is its people."

The building sits up the hill from an old freight yard, set off from the bars and traffic of Washington Boulevard. Through several renovations, the church has hung onto its history, including a yellowed and crumbling Bible purchased in 1867.

Most of the congregation at Sexton has either moved away or died. The church struggled to bring in new members, sponsoring a youth group and taking field trips to bowling alleys and parks. To save money, parishioners cleaned the building themselves. The congregation even stopped buying pins for perfect attendance to Sunday School -- a practice for decades.

But the cost-cutting fell short and last year's $70,000 in donations could not pay the utility and insurance bills. In January, the congregation heard that the church would close.

"The minute they told us it was closing, my heart broke," said Anne Dillow, 66, who has come to Sexton every week for the past 44 years. "I've been grieving since then."

Sexton is the last of a small group of United Methodist churches in the city to close or consolidate in recent years. Waverly United Methodist Church recently closed, and there are no more United Methodist services at Relay, St. Paul's and Good Shepherd churches.

Citywide, membership at United Methodist churches has dropped 75 percent since their heyday in the 1950s, said Edwin Schell, the historian for the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Conference. In forty years, the United Methodist churches in Baltimore lost 31,000 members, he said.

Much of that decline has to do with the flight to the suburbs, a fact Pat Edwards knows all too well.

"It's sad because my roots are here," said Mrs. Edwards, 50, who grew up in Morrell Park but moved to Severna Park five years ago. She has been driving to the Sexton church every Sunday to hear Mr. Byrne's sermons.

"The reason we moved is because the community is going down. It has changed so much. But we don't want to lose all the memories at this church."

Ms. Dillow remembers when hundreds of children came to the church to take preschool or Sunday School classes, pouring out of the new rowhouses along Harman Avenue, Spence Street and Griffis Avenue.

Their teacher was "Miss Ruth" Owens, who sat in her pew yesterday as she has for more years than anyone else in the congregation. Over the years she has led the Camp Fire Girls, the Brownie troop, the Cub Scouts. She has outlasted 16 ministers and taught "oh honey, thousands upon thousands of children, sometimes a thousand in one day."

She said this at a lunchtime reception after the last sermon, while she bounced 17-month-old Ciara Booth on her knee and hummed the song "Turkey in the Straw." Miss Ruth always gravitated toward the children in the congregation.

"I already miss them," said Miss Ruth, who is thought to be around 90, although she won't tell her age. "I'll probably have a party in my yard every day to bring them back."

The church started in 1863 in a small frame building down the street, where Mary Sexton urged her husband, Samuel, to begin a public school in the community. Soon a Sunday School started, and in 1867 Mr. Sexton presented a Bible to the school, which had become a working chapel. Within a few years the congregation had grown so large that it met in a tent, and the congregation built what became the current church.

In 1955, parishioners raised more than $75,000, more than twice what they needed, to renovate the structure. In that year, church attendance rose more than 34 percent, The Sun reported.

The parishioners fought changes in their neighborhood, making headlines again in 1964 when they lost a fight against a new license allowing drinking, music and dancing at Malinowski's Bar.

Most parishioners don't know where they'll go to church now, although there is an invitation for them to attend the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church near the Inner Harbor. Mrs. Grimes knows only one thing for certain.

"I'm going to church no matter what," she said. "We can't just give up."

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