A Brief History of the Building of a Country Church and Its Transformation Into a Modern Suburban Community of Faith
The information is excerpted from The History of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City, MD, a reprint of a booklet done by the late Elva Hewett, a longtime parishioner of St. John’s.
Almost forty years before The War Between the States, an historic meeting took place at Whitehall, home of Charles W. Dorsey. It was decided on that historic day to found a church that would provide the area’s Episcopalians a more convenient place to worship. In 1822 the Maryland General Assembly incorporated St. John’s Church, “a chapel of ease” in Queen Caroline Parish, and a structure was built on land generously donated by Caleb and Elizabeth Dorsey.
Today’s parishioners would find it difficult recognizing their church if they walked into the early nineteenth century structure. Just entering would require a walk in the opposite direction of today’s church since, at that time, St. John’s faced north. The building itself was a stone and rough cast structure, thirty-eight by thirty-six feet. It included four large columns and a portico in front, and was painted white. “The White Church” accommodated 200 worshipers and a gallery of servants.
Ecclesiastical Architect Designs New Church
By 1859 plans were drawn for a new church to be erected on the same site under the direction of clergyman Hugh T. Harrison. Norris Gibson Starkweather of New York City, a leading ecclesiastical architect was chosen to design it. Despite the influences of the New Yorker and his Gothic design, the new church was distinctly Howard County—it was built of hard Howard County Granite. The new structure also included a wooden arched belfry with a stone base and, most magnificently, a solid stone spire. The original design called for it to reach 89 feet into the sky, but the stone was so heavy, it had to be limited to 83 feet. St. John’s is one of only 12 churches in the country with a solid stone spiral, making it a distinctive landmark.
Starting in 1873, the addition of memorial windows began. The first was given in memory of Judge Thomas B. Dorsey and his wife by their children. The Dorsey family again figured prominently with the donation of a church bell by Maria L. Dorsey. Its inscription read: “To the glory of God. Make a noise unto God all ye lands.”
St. John’s Cemetery
In 1871, Sallie Elizabeth Dorsey offered to St. John’s one and one-half acres adjoining the church land to be used as a cemetery. The church accepted and sold lots in advance. In 1904 the cemetery became a separate corporation, but retained the name of St. John’s Cemetery of Howard County.