Moving 'up the hill'

The Baltimore Sun

When the 10:30 a.m. worship service ends at St. James Episcopal Church in Mount Airy today, congregation members will carry the altar and a large wooden cross out of the sanctuary while singing "The Church's One Foundation."

That procession will mark the closing of the little 119-year-old red brick church at 204 N. Main St., where through those years, Mount Airy residents worshiped and have been confirmed, baptized, married and mourned.

Then, parishioners will begin the final move to a new building at 1307 N. Main St., about a mile north on a hill that overlooks tree-covered hills to the east and the Catoctin Mountains to the west.

"I'm going to the 8:30 a.m. service Sunday," said Carolyn Etzler, who has attended St. James since 1956 and is a member of the building committee. "I don't know if I want to watch the altar taken out."

"When all of it started, getting the land and the new church, I was excited about the church, but I didn't want to let go of St. James," she added. "I guess, in the last four or five years when I thought about it, it's not the building, it's the people, so I'm ready to let go."

Etzler, whose mother, siblings, children, nieces and nephews attended St. James, said she hopes another congregation buys the old church that sits down a slope off Main and St. James streets.

Like her congregation, the Rev. Portia Hirschman, rector of St. James for 5 1/2 years, has bittersweet feelings about leaving the original church, which has served so many for so long.

"There definitely is grief and loss," she said. "The last two Sundays we've given the congregation opportunities to share stories, memories and their feelings about the church.

"This place has been important and sacred, and it's hard to leave no matter what you feel - joy, pride, sadness. It's been important for us to admit that and deal with it."

But as with all new adventures, there also is "a lot of excitement about moving up the hill," Hirschman said.

"It's like parents waiting for Christmas, - you know it's going to be fun, but you also know it's going to be a lot of hard work," she said.

The building project started almost a decade ago when the congregation purchased 12 acres at the north end of town. A committee was formed to create a plan for the new church and a fundraising campaign was initiated. Including land acquisition, the project is projected to cost $4.3 million.

The project took off when Hirschman, who is a construction engineer and the church's first female rector, arrived in spring 2002.

St. James broke ground for the new church in May last year with the goal of being finished by this Labor Day. Since then, as the building nears completion, members have pitched in to paint, install cabinets and do other interior work to realize the dream.

"It looks like we're going to make it, but it's going to be close, very close," Hirschman said Wednesday as workers continued to finish last-minute details, and she fretted that the sprinkler system wasn't ready for inspection.

The first part of a two-phase building project, the new structure is being referred to as the Great Hall. Chairs will be installed instead of pews so the room can be used for various functions, including worship, Hirschman said. An addition to provide space for a permanent sanctuary for worship and more classrooms is planned.

Capable of seating 200 to 300 people, with a soaring inverted V ceiling of wooden beams, plain white walls and fixtures, clear glass windows, and stained concrete floor of a mottled black and brown, the Great Hall offers light and simplicity.

"We went for beautiful and practical," Hirschman said. "This space has to be used for a lot of different things."

Offices and classrooms for Sunday school and preschool will be in the lower level. Besides doubling the church's space, the new building also "will have everybody under one roof," the rector said. The red brick exterior is intended to serves as a visual connection to the old church, Hirschman added.

Joan Fader, the church's secretary since 1980, displayed a photo album of the new church with pictures of the project taken every two weeks from groundbreaking to last week.

"We have dreamed about it for a long time and always looked forward to it, and now it's next week," Faden said. "This Sunday will be a unique experience."

The original church, with its stained-glass windows, Celtic influence from Irish railroad workers who founded the congregation, and dark wooden pews that sit only 100 people, isn't big enough anymore for the congregation's 120 families and burgeoning preschool program.

A separate Parish House next door has served as home to the church and preschool offices and preschool classrooms. The sale of the old location, which is on the market, is expected to pay for part of the cost of the new facility.

"It was a combination of needing more space for worship, the preschool and Sunday school," Hirschman said. "And our mission is outreach, and there's a shortage of meeting space in Mount Airy."

Bonnie Winkler will be glad to move into the bigger church and has thrown herself into getting the new church ready by painting and doing other tasks.

Winkler has attended St. James since she was born. Her grandmother and parents went to St. James, and she and her children and grandchildren go there.

"I'm clicking my heels, anxious to get up the hill," Winkler said. "It's sad, but I think it's just wonderful. I want all the new things for my grandchildren. They're all happy about it, too. It's going to be wonderful. I'm already very attached to it."

The congregation will hold its first worship service in the new church at 10 a.m. Sept. 2, followed by a potluck brunch.

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