The Rev. Lance Gifford collected food for the hungry and kept his church's doors open to all.
The Rev. Lance Gifford collected food for the hungry and kept his church's doors open to all. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Lance A.B. Gifford, pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mount Washington for more than two decades, who made feeding the hungry and caring for the homeless a central focus of his ministry, died Nov. 20 from a ruptured aortic aneurysm at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown.

He was 74.

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Episcopal Bishop Carol J. Gallagher, who is currently canon for the Central Region of the Diocese of Massachusetts, was a parishioner at. St. John’s and has remained a close friend.

“He was my rector and priest at St. John’s before I was in the process of going to seminary, and we became friends, and he supported me throughout seminary,” said Bishop Gallagher, who later was an assistant at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Incarnation.

“With Lance, there was no separation between the priesthood and humanity. He was a very welcoming presence with all types of folks and from all walks of life,” she said. “Everybody was welcome, and he was very good at making people feel at home. he let them be themselves and there was no religious pretension.”

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“Lance was one of the most intelligent individuals I’ve ever known. People who knew him have a hole in their hearts,” said John B. Hammond, former St. John’s registrar and communicant, who lives in Mount Washington.

“He was a church historian, teacher and counselor who in his sermons did a wonderful job of putting things in context. He was kind, compassionate and a very dear friend,” he said. “He cared about people who were less fortunate than those of us who were better off. He cared about the hungry and those who didn’t have a roof over their heads.”

Lance Allen Ball Gifford was born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton and Kingsville. He was the son of R. Hugh Gifford, an insurance salesman, and Carolyn Morhiser, a homemaker.

He was a 1962 graduate of McDonogh School, where he was editor of The Week, the school newspaper. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from Washington & Lee University and his divinity degree in 1969 from New York City’s General Theological Seminary.

Ordained a deacon in 1969 and into the priesthood the next year, Father Gifford began his pastoral career at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Edmondson Avenue and spent most of the 1970s as assistant to the rector.

In 1974, he was named interim priest at the Episcopal Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria in West Baltimore.

“It was a proud but poor community at the corner of Presstman and Division streets. The entire congregation was African-Americans. They didn’t care. I was warmly welcomed, honored and accepted, as was my wife,” Father Gifford wrote in a biographical sketch. “On Thanksgiving and Easter, the whole congregation would eat together at the church. Everyone was expected to chip in, but some folks were not able to.”

Congressman Parren J. Mitchell, who was one of Father Gifford’s parishioners, assisted.

“Now that he’s dead, I can tell. He personally underwrote any needy family, and then absolutely forbade me to tell anyone,” he wrote. “That’s the mark of the man. May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace.”

In 1985, Father Gifford became pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mount Washington, which was established in 1867.

“His sermons were theological, intellectual and approachable, and because he read widely, they were inspiring,” Bishop Gallagher said. “They even contained a bit of humor.”

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Mr. Hammond said that Father Gifford never carried a hymnal because he knew every hymn by heart.

“And his sermons were always on the short side and to the point, yet fully informative,” he wrote in an email. “His use of inflection would take the written word and make it jump off of the page. He could put you in the room at the Last Supper. He rarely dodged the tougher Gospel messages and instead he would tackle them by focusing on the positive.”

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“Lance was eclectic, unique and different and I am not using those words to say something negative,” said Michael H. Hilliard of Towson, who had been senior warden during Father Gifford’s tenure.”He was a good rector who loved people, music and the Episcopal Church, and when I had at time personal trials, he was always there for me and was very supportive.”

One of his achievements was forging a relationship between the parish and local merchants. When a fire destroyed a local grocery store, he contacted the owners and offered them space until their store could be rebuilt and open.

Father Gifford fought to keep the church open even though vandals had broken in and stole silver.

“He refused to lock the doors,” his wife of 42 years, Margaret “Margy” McCampbell wrote in a biographical profile of her husband. “Often people, non-parishioners, would stop by and seek some silence in the church. Often, Lance would find a homeless man catching a nap.”

A cornerstone of Father Gifford’s ministry was initiating a food contribution basket program. Those attending services would put canned goods or non-perishables in a basket that was taken by ushers to the altar for Father Gifford’s blessing.

A parishioner who wished to remain anonymous helped him start what was called “Mother Hubbard’s Challenge Cupboard.” The parish’s donated food would be weighed after a month, and then the the anonymous parishioner would match the contribution, which would then be given to a local food pantry.

He also supported St. John’s participation in the Salvation Army’s Feedmore Program. He served as a member of the Diocesan Youth Committee and as chaplain to students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson.

He also was a member of the Episcopal Diocese’s Committee to Older Adults, and for several years was editor of The Gift of Aging.

In the 1970s, he played a role in the restoration of Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in downtown Baltimore, where toppled markers were repaired, and during construction of Martin Luther King Boulevard, he was often summoned to bless unearthed remains, his wife said.

Even though he retired in 2008, Father Gifford volunteered, working in the diocesan archives to transcribe the personal letters of 19th-century Maryland Episcopal Bishop William R. Whittingham, who served from 1840 to 1879.

“Whittingham was a seminal figure in the 19th-century Episcopal Church. He was one of the most brilliant and well-received man of his time,” said Mary O. Klein, diocesan archivist, who lives in Roland Park. “He was one of the leading old-fashioned churchmen of the era and just an amazing man.”

The assignment proved to be serendipitous for Father Gifford, who was able to blend his love of history with that of the church.

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“We have all of Whittingham’s personal correspondence and it had not been transcribed or cataloged. I gave it to Lance and he learned to read his handwriting very well and transcribed more than 200 letters, which was a major accomplishment.”

The former Hollins Street resident, who had lived on Dixon Road in Mount Washington for the last 27 years, enjoyed reading, history and gourmet cooking.

A memorial service was held Jan. 12 at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roland Park.

In addition to his wife, Father Gifford is survived by two daughters,Caroline Adams of Pylesville and Meg Tucker of Bowie; a sister, Candace Bonney of Asheville, N.C.; and four grandchildren.

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