The year was 1855 when a group of African-Americans met in a grove in Towson to pray for God's blessing to form a church. Now, 140 years later, their descendants' prayers for a bigger and better house of worship are about to be answered.
One of the oldest black churches in the county, Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church recently broke ground on a $1.5 million project to build a worship and education center in East Towson.
The Rev. Ann Farrar Lightner, Mount Calvary's pastor, said the new building will occupy half an acre in the 300 block of Eudowood Lane and will allow the church to better serve its growing congregation better.
"Right now we are crowded in here like crabs in a barrel," Dr. Lightner said of her present sanctuary, which seats about 190 people. "We have approximately 300 members and have had to go to two worship services to try to accommodate everyone."
Membership has swelled as the church has gained recognition through its radio ministry and families returning to Towson, the pastor said. The new sanctuary will seat 400, and the present building will be demolished to make way for the educational center, Dr. Lightner said.
The Mount Calvary church house was not built until 1890 when the land on Eudowood Lane was purchased and a one-room sanctuary erected.
Current members say that what began as a small community church has prospered over the years despite such setbacks as the exodus of many black families from East Towson in the 1950s and a fire that destroyed the original church in 1969.
Doris Jackson's family was one of more than 300 black families that lived in East Towson in the early 20th century. Mrs. Jackson, 70, grew up in the church and six generations of her family have attended it.
"It was an important part of the community," Mrs. Jackson said. "There weren't many places that were open to us."
Like many of her contemporaries, Mrs. Jackson married and moved into the city, where jobs were more plentiful. And like many others, she journeyed back to Towson every Sunday for services.
"The church was your home, and everybody knew everybody else," Mrs. Jackson said. "When one family was hurting, we all hurt."
Valerie Britton has been involved with the church for all of her 74 years -- ever since she was placed on the "cradle roll" at birth. She and her nine siblings attended Sunday school where her grandmother, Clara Smith, was superintendent.
Sunday school attendance was mandatory for the black children growing up in the area, Mrs. Britton said.
"That was Towson," Mrs. Britton said, chuckling at the many hours she spent sitting on a pew learning her religion lessons. "There was no question of whether you wanted to go -- you had to go."
Mrs. Britton was married at Mount Calvary in 1944 and the original building held fond memories of her childhood and her wedding. It was late one night in 1969 when her sister, Iona McQuay, called to say the church was ablaze.
"I remember my sister crying and crying," said Mrs. Britton, who along with other church members rushed to try to help.
Members met at another church during the three years it took to rebuild. The reopening of Mount Calvary was cause for celebration, and Mrs. Jackson said enthusiasm again is high at the prospect of a new church.
"We are all so excited," she said. "It's a real blessing."