In an earlier generation, the United House of Prayer for All People met in a boxy brick building on Preston Street in West Baltimore its members called "Old Town."
Sawdust lay on the ground. There was no floor, a pot-bellied stove provided the heat during winter, and when it was hot, services moved outside under a tent.
Old-timers invoked those memories as the Pentecostal congregation admired the new sanctuary on Liberty Heights Avenue in Ashburton, where members of the denomination founded by C. M. "Sweet Daddy" Grace will celebrate the first Sunday services tomorrow.
"It's splendid. It's glorious. It's magnificent. It is truly marvelous in this house," Apostle H. L. Griner, pastor of the 200-member congregation, told a crowd that packed the 800-seat sanctuary during a dedication service Thursday night.
The new multimillion-dollar House of Prayer, one of two such congregations in Baltimore, is on the site of the former Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church. The congregation renovated the church and erected a 30,000-square-foot red brick sanctuary on the property. The entrance is flanked by two white plaster lions. Overhead are two golden angels and three crosses.
Adjacent is a baptistery for full-immersion baptisms, conducted once a year in August, and a cafeteria for after-service gatherings. The renovated church building contains offices, an adult day-care center and a smaller sanctuary for weekday worship.
The congregation settled on the Ashburton site after an attempt to buy an 8.8-acre plot in Druid Hill Park from the city, which had received preliminary approval, was rebuffed amid opposition from community and conservation groups.
The church also ran into initial opposition from the community association after it proposed a 1,400-seat sanctuary. Anne Emery, president of the Ashburton Area Association, said her members were concerned about parking and traffic, and wanted a church that blended into the neighborhood, like the other three in the area.
Now, she said, she has no complaints. "They have done a lot of things we asked and we're grateful, and we see them as a great neighbor," she said.
Any past strife was overshadowed by awe and gratitude as the congregation and church officials from along the Eastern seaboard gathered for the dedication.
"Almighty God, would you come down?" prayed Bishop S C. Madison, the third leader of the 81-year-old denomination, in the songlike chant of African-American Holiness preaching. "Come down in your mighty spirit and bless this house, from the roof all the way down to the foundation."
As his prayer reached a crescendo, the congregation responded with clapping, shouting and stomping feet. "Thank you, Lord!" he thundered. "I can feel your Spirit. I feel your power! I pray in Jesus' name, Amen!"
With that, the church's shout band, the Madison Sounds of Heaven, kicked off a rousing tune. Shout bands, a tradition unique to the United House of Prayer for All People, are brass bands with more than a dozen trombones, a baritone, a Sousaphone and a rhythm section of snare and bass drum and cymbals that improvises an upbeat style of music reminiscent of New Orleans jazz. The music, played without singing, is a conduit for the Holy Spirit.
This, like many of the group's practices, is based on the Bible, in Chapter 63 of the Book of Isaiah: "... from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord."
"One new moon to the next means every day. We're open seven days a week, 365 days a year," said assistant pastor W. H. Wright.
The House of Prayer for All People was founded in 1919 in West Wareham, Mass., by Grace, who emigrated from the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. He incorporated the United House of Prayer for All People on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith in Washington in 1927. The mother church, "God's White House," is still in Washington.
Grace died in 1960. He was succeeded by Bishop Walter McCollough, also called "Sweet Daddy," as is Madison. "These are names that we endear to our leaders," said Wright.
With McCollough's death in 1991, Madison took over. Madison embarked on an ambitious building and renovation campaign, paid for out of a national fund that pays off the mortgages of new buildings before the congregation moves in. This practice is based on Sweet Daddy Grace's philosophy.
"Bishop Grace, he taught us you can't give God something you don't own," Wright said. "It would be a sad occasion to dedicate a church to God, if you're not able to pay the mortgage and the bank forecloses. That means God would have to move. ... This church is paid for."