It's preaching to the congregation, but so be it


CHURCH-GOING and membership was an essential part of the old Guilford Avenue neighborhood where I spent my childhood. On many a summer's evening, as neighbor after neighbor watched the sun go down while seated on the adjoining rowhouse front porches, they chatted. Every so often the discussion turned to religion.

High-minded theology was not on their lips. The relative popularity of pastors (pro and con), attractiveness of young curates, church fashion dress, altar flowers or impatient children who squirmed during long sermons were all points of discussion. To be a part of the community, you simply had to belong to a religious body.

Dorothy Croswell, one of our Guilford Avenue neighbors, was temporarily unchurched at one period in the 1950s. This situation was not permitted to endure too long.

Thanks to a hefty dose of neighborly concern -- and some lecturing on the part of my grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, great Aunt Cora -- she returned to the fold. Her church, where she had a long and faithful tenure, was Second Presbyterian on St. Paul Street in Guilford.

I believe it was Louise Carpenter, who lived two doors away, who actually prodded Dorothy to return to her ancestral church, and specifically, Pew 64, where her family paid pew rent for so long. (On my visits there, Pew 64 fascinated me. It was a closed pew, with a door and ketch. The church ushers, who dressed in snappy gray morning suits, had white boutonnieres.)

In her many years of membership at Second Presbyterian, Dorothy got to know all its clergy. In a similar vein, she got to know many of the Catholic priests who were frequent visitors at our home -- I can see her and Father Aloysius Mack, a Loyola College Jesuit, working a difficult crossword puzzle.

Dorothy's last pastor here was the Rev. Ernest Smart, a fine man who I got to know during his tenure at Second Presbyterian. I, like so many members of his congregation, was deeply saddened when he preached his sermon this past Sunday and resigned following a spell of denominational controversy.

Some years ago I was immediately stuck by his integrity, his clarity of vision and his principles. Dorothy, a Baltimore social worker, saw eye-to-eye with him. And, as the saying goes, when Dorothy was happy, everyone was happy.

I would also add one word to describe the departing Mr. Smart. He is a modest man of unfailing kindnesses.

One of his staff members had requested that I give a talk to a group of retired persons who took their lunches in the church hall. Not often does the pastor bother to attend a function that would hardly be considered important. But Mr. Smart was very much of part of this day.

When I concluded my remarks, Mr. Smart, who figured out my interest in Baltimore landmarks, suggested that we climb up the ladders and view the workings of the 1920s clock tower in the steeple.

I decided to play a little more hooky from the newspaper and led the way to view all the gears and drive shafts -- as well as the antediluvian electric system that lighted the clock tower at night. I felt as if he and I were the two Hardy Boys investigating some mystery.

On another occasion, he accomplished the impossible. He coaxed Dorothy, a true Baltimorean who didn't drive and was never comfortable leaving the city limits, to get a passport. She, her cousin and other members of the congregation visited Mr. Smart's native Scotland.

His winning ways must have worked for most of the 18 years he was at Second Presbyterian.

I think of all the Sundays that I came down St. Paul Street and encountered lines of parked cars and people milling around the stately old church. By this time, Dorothy herself had joined the heavenly choir. But her favorite pastor, and his winning ways, were packing them in, precisely in the manner those Guilford Avenue porch talkers so approved.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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