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Free Will church splurged on a Bentley in '05

The Baltimore Sun

The First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church bought a luxurious custom Bentley in 2005, the same year the inner-city church failed to pay a $12,000 water bill that has led to the filing of a foreclosure suit, motor vehicle records show.

The congregation that owns the 140-year-old West Baltimore church, destroyed last week by lightning, is fending off multiple foreclosure threats because of the delinquent water bill and an alleged mortgage default on the 9-acre property the church owns in Southwest Baltimore, according to court records.

Former First Mount Olive parishioner Mary Hynes, 84, remembers when the black Bentley was ceremoniously given to Bishop Oscar E. Brown two summers ago.

Brown backed the car out from the church yard onto Saratoga Street while parishioners "stood out there hollering, praising him because he had this," Hynes said. "I didn't think it was right."

The splurge on the turbo-charged English motorcar worth as much as $150,000 at the time of sale - more than many of the homes in the church's immediate neighborhood - raises new questions about the congregation's fiscal management.

Church officials declined yesterday to offer any answers.

"My hopes are that at some time I will be able to respond," said spokesman Bryan Miller. "But at this point, no comment."

In the days after the July 10 fire , the church received offers of help from Mayor Sheila Dixon and money from supporters around the country, Brown said.

Brown has reassured his 3,000-member congregation that First Mount Olive will receive a $4 million insurance payout.

A spokeswoman for GuideOne Insurance said yesterday that the company will honor the church's insurance policy, but that it "may be several weeks before a final valuation is determined."

City investigators determined a few days after the blaze that it was sparked by the lightning.

In addition to facing multiple foreclosure suits over the still-unpaid 2005 water bill of $12,342 and other municipal bills, First Mount Olive was notified just days before the fire that the property it acquired in 2002 would be auctioned at the end of this month. The church is accused of defaulting on its $1.5 million mortgage, held by SunTrust Bank, records show.

The auctioneer, Atlantic Asset Management Group, says the foreclosure sale is scheduled to go on July 26.

Yesterday, a spokesman for Dixon said the mayor was unaware of the church's financial problems when she offered to help and would not discuss them. "We're just going to decline comment," said spokesman Anthony McCarthy.

Rabbi Steven M. Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom said Dixon's office helped arrange for First Mount Olive to temporarily hold Sunday services at the 800-seat synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, starting Sunday.

According to car ownership records obtained by The Sun, and confirmed by the state Motor Vehicle Administration, the church registered the 2002 Bentley Arnage sedan in 2005.

Matthew Smith, a car salesman at EuroMotorcars in Bethesda said a Bentley Arnage, which takes as long as three months to construct by hand, costs at least $225,000 new. He estimated that the car the church bought was worth between $130,000 and $150,000, assuming it was in good condition. Today, it is worth about $120,000, he said.

Hynes daughter, Ingrid Heigs, said Brown typically kept the Bentley parked in a fenced-in portion of the church property.

"If you're in that kind of debt, you would think instead of buying a Bentley you would pay your bills up and stay out of foreclosure," Heigs said. "But if his congregation felt as though he was worth buying a Bentley for, who's to say that he wasn't?"

Brown did not return a call yesterday placed to his Howard County home, a 3,800-square house built in 1997 and appraised for tax purposes at about $600,000.

A late model Lexus SC430 sports car was parked in front of his house yesterday.

"That's really nice, that he drives a Bentley," said Fink, the rabbi. "I'll have to see if he'll give me a ride."

The 43-year-old bishop is not the only religious leader in Baltimore's inner city to travel in extravagant style.

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Northwest Baltimore's Empowerment Temple drives a leased 2006 Bentley Continental Flying Spur, according to state records.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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