Jessops United Methodist Church is one church that really is just a building. It hasn't had a congregation since 1947.
But there is something at the end of the long, evergreen-lined driveway off York Road in Sparks that draws people to the historic stone building and cemetery, where some of Baltimore County's most famous families are buried.
For such pilgrims, there is a serenity about the church's high-arched ceiling, oak pews, pulpit and Gothic, high-back chairs upholstered in red velvet. For them, almost two centuries of history lie here on the pristine land hidden from the hustle and bustle of nearby Hunt Valley's businesses.
This weekend, Jessops is celebrating its 190th anniversary by opening the doors to the public and welcoming its few surviving, former parishioners for a service today at one of the oldest Methodist churches in the state. Members of the church's board of trustees are not sure how many members are still living.
"Someone asked me why were we celebrating the 190th instead of the 200th anniversary," said Ellen Breidenbaugh, chairwoman of Jessops' anniversary committee. "Well, a lot of our people might not be around in another 10 years. Every time we do a mailing to those once associated with this church, we get 20 letters back that say 'deceased.'
"This place is a real gem," said Breidenbaugh, who has ancestors buried at Jessops. "That's why we wanted to do it now, to share it with our older members and the public."
Jessops holds two special services a year, a homecoming service and a memorial service. In addition, Epworth United Methodist Church in Cockeysville holds Christmas Eve and Easter sunrise services at Jessops. Funerals, baptisms and weddings occasionally take place on the grounds.
The Jessops church's board of trustees oversees such events. The 12 board members take care of church finances and maintenance and view this weekend's celebration as a trumpet call for new church supporters -- younger ones, trustees hope -- who will help care for the church and boost attendance for the special services.
'A sense of obligation'
"I feel a sense of obligation, that's why I'm involved," said trustee Walter LeRoy Brewer, 58, who attended special services at Jessops with his mother, who was a member of the Cockey family for which Cockeysville is named.
"So many people are buried there and just for the age of the building alone, someone's got to take the responsibility for carrying this on," Brewer added.
For a house of worship with no membership, the church remains in good shape.
On a recent cold and dreary morning, with rain falling steadily, Judy Cool and Catherine Price dipped rags into a bucket of Murphy's Oil and wiped each pew from top to bottom. Breaking a sweat in the unheated sanctuary, they cleaned streaks off the stained-glass windows and swept away cobwebs.
Both women are trustees, have attended special services at Jessops and have grandparents and other relatives buried there.
"My grandmother was a member of the congregation," said Price, 57, of Cockeysville. "She used to walk here on Sundays from Cockeysville. I can remember when we were little, I'd wait for the usher to ring the bell to start service. That was a big deal to watch."
The church was formed in 1809 as Jessop's Methodist Episcopal Church, with services held at various homes, most often at the home of Charles B. Gorsuch, a co-founder who owned the property where the church would be built. The church was named for community leader and co-founder Charles Jessop.
At the urging of Jessop, Jessop's Meeting House was built in 1811.
The structure was rectangular and plain, 60 feet by 40 feet, with a series of windows along its east and west walls.
Renovations begin in 1854
It served as the church until 1854, when church leaders decided that a larger building was needed, and the structure was added to and renovated. Over the next 35 years, the original church went through dramatic transformations, notably a redesign in 1886 by Baltimore architect Benjamin Buck Owens. He added a large belfry, vestibule, oak pews, dormer windows and the pulpit.
With the exception of a switch to electricity and propane heating from kerosene light and a wood stove, little has changed inside from the 1880s version of the church. Outside, much has. Office parks and business centers dominate the sweeping valleys and ridges once filled with farms and mills.
But to keep the development from encroaching on Jessops (over the years the apostrophe was dropped from the name), the church was listed as a Baltimore County landmark and added to the Maryland Historic Sites Inventory in 1992.
"People just love this church," said Breidenbaugh. "They have a strong emotional attachment to it, and they care for it like a baby."
When trustee Brewer visits the church, he envisions people riding in horse-drawn carriages to the meeting house. He thinks about the troops marching on York Road during the Civil War and marvels at some of the objects left.
One of those, a Civil War-era Communion chalice found buried in the cemetery, will be used at 2 p.m. today during a re-creation of an 1809 church service. Tours were held yesterday and will be again today.
Bob Reter, 67, can remember living on the church grounds when his father-in-law served as caretaker.
Reter married Eva Tracey 50 years ago in the caretaker's house, where their son, Herbert William, would be born.
No good cemetery is without ghost stories, Reter said, and Jessops has them. Members have long talked of a mysterious light in the cemetery that appeared during the night and moved through the headstones as people approached it.
"It's really a joy to be a part of this," said Reter, who lives in Parkville with his wife. "We take it very seriously and we work hard to keep the place in good shape."
"It's not the building, it's the people," said Cool, 39. "We may not have people, but the people that do come here are very dedicated. It's our history."
Information on today's activities: Ellen Breidenbaugh, 410-472-4620.
Pub Date: 9/26/99