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Area church served by Hepburns

Christ Church I.U., a Kent County landmark, has stood at the head of Churn Creek in Catts Corner, six miles northwest of Chestertown, since 1765.

Earlier this week, parishioners of the 30-member Gothic Revival brick church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, learned they were beneficiaries of the largesse of actress Katharine Hepburn.

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Hepburn, who died last month at 96, willed $10,000 to the diminutive church where her grandfather, the Rev. Sewell Stavely Hepburn, had served as rector from 1911 until 1926.

The Hepburn family first settled in Kent County in the 1600s, when two brothers, Joseph and James Hepbron, immigrated from Scotland.

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Hepburn's great-grandfather, Sewell Hepbron, wrote a genealogical portrait of his family that was included in Old Kent: The Eastern Shore of Maryland, published in 1876, that sought to explain the origin of the name.

"The names as I find them from old paper parchments has been variously spelled, Hepporn, Hepbourn, Hepron, and Hepburn, which latter mode I have no doubt is the correct way of spelling it."

However, he listed his son, who was Katharine Hepburn's grandfather, as "Rev. Sewell S. Hepbron, present rector of St. Paul's and I.U. Parishes in Kent County," and signed the article, "Sewell Hepbron."

In 1828, the actress' great-grandfather purchased Shepherd's Delight in Still Pond. The farm, later occupied by her grandfather and where Kate spent summers as a child, remains in the family.

Rev. Hepburn graduated in 1864 from Washington College, and after earning his divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1869.

From 1874 until 1881, he was rector of St. Paul's Parish in Kent County. For the next 25 years, he served small parish churches in Hanover, King William, New Kent, Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia. Because he had served so many churches at once, he was jokingly given the honorary title of the "Bishop of Hanover."

"To reach his scattered charges he went by horse and buggy, so often and so long as to enable him in late years to estimate that he must have driven a total of 200,000 miles, eight times the distance about the globe, in fair weather and foul, mud and dust, bitter cold wind and stifling-hot sunshine," said The Sun in 1932.

He returned to Maryland in 1906, when he was named rector of St. Luke's Parish in Church Hill, Queen Anne's County. He also served at St. Paul's in Rock Hall before becoming rector of Christ Church I.U. in 1911, where he remained until resigning in 1926.

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It was during his tenure at Christ Church that Hepburn had the idea of erecting a concrete wall around its historic churchyard, where some of the most prominent figures from Kent County's Colonial past rest.

Hepburn was also an accomplished agriculturist, a longtime member of the Kent County Grange and a prominent breeder of Pol-Angus cattle.

He also wrote widely on farm issues, including a series of bylined articles for The Sun during the 1920s. His stories chronicled farm life from the Civil War to the early 20th century, when machines and electricity removed much of the daily drudgery from the farmer's life.

Hepburn was proud of the fact that an uncle's purchase of the original 500-acre farm at $10 an acre in 1825 resulted in its ability to support later generations of his family.

"In the 98 years this property has been in my family, I estimate that not less than 35 people, besides servants and retainers beyond my ability to figure out, have had their entire support for all these years from that investment by my uncle," he wrote in 1924.

"I am the only one that has ever had a salary and that an insignificant one. I am proud to say that not one of these people has ever been sued for debt. Their credit today is a No. 1," he wrote.

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Hepburn rhapsodized about farm life when he recalled, in another story, that the farm "is the last place to be touched by any great national or world movement."

At his death in 1932, a Sun editorial described him as "one of Maryland's oldest and best-loved clergymen."

"Only the older generation who know the desolation which the Civil War left in its wake can know how desperately that countryside needed the faith and hope that church offers, and the eagerness with which kindly shepherds like Dr. Hepburn met that need.

"Perhaps no one was more astonished than he when years ago, his alma mater gave him his doctorate. 'Why, I'm just a country parson,' he exclaimed. Yet it still can be asked whether any group within the church ever earned recognition more richly."

Sun news researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.


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