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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.

 

New Rectory

By the 1930s much of the church discussion revolved around what to do about obtaining a new church rectory. The old one had been donated by Reuben Dorsey in 1850. A portion of the land was sold in 1924. The decision was made to offer the clergy allowances for living expenses. Finally, in the 1940s, the decision was made to build a rectory on land purchased from the cemetery.

 

It is impressive to note that the industrious parishioners began discussion of building a parish house before work on the rectory was even complete. The cornerstone for this project was laid in 1951.

 

Rose Hill

The 1960s was a period of growth for St. John’s, with membership over one six-year period quadrupling in the face of the suburban migrations that swept over the community.  Rose Hill, adjoining the church property on the west, was purchased in 1960. After major renovation in 1994, the first floor serves as a center for youth activities while the second and third stories provide an apartment for assisting clergy and a guest suite.

 

Parish Day School

In order to accommodate a rapidly growing Sunday School as well as an expanded Parish Day School, May of 1963 saw the cornerstone laid for a new educational building—later dedicated to the Rev. Dr. John Paul Carter. Located just to the rear and east of the parish house, the two buildings are connected by a Commons room.

 

In 1971, the subject of church expansion was raised again with even greater enthusiasm. It was determined that the church should be extended by forty-three feet at the altar end. This work was made easier by the happy discovery of a temporary wall there. St. John’s founding fathers were one step ahead of the effort more than a hundred years earlier! Under the extended area was an excavation giving space for a choir robing and rehearsal room. This expansion had the unfortunate side effect of removing the Victorian-era columns, plaster decoration and woodwork from the chancel area and replacing them with rather contemporary altar furniture and risers.

 

The Rose Window

This renovation gave greater emphasis to the church’s stained-glass windows. It was during this time that the rose memorial window was placed behind the altar in remembrance of Edward T. Clark, Jr. and his wife, Marie Doe Clark.

 

The Parish Life Center

The remainder of the 1970s and the 1980s saw continued rapid growth. The “Towards 2000 A.D.” strategic planning process completed in 1988 recommended expansion of the church and the creation of additional meeting space and offices. Architect James Wollon created a plan for the church phase of the project that included a major interior restoration styled after the original Starkweather designs of 1860. Construction in the church took place between Christmas of 1991 and Easter of 1992 and resulted in a 25% expansion of seating in the church by relocating the clergy vesting room and sacristy into an addition built outside the altar wall. Improvements to the basement resulted in new choir rehearsal space as well as doubling of the number of columbarium niches. Simultaneously, the Parish Life Center was built on the eastern edge of the campus to house clergy and administrative offices and to create new meeting space for group meetings and Christian education.

 

Expanding Ministries

By the mid 1990’s, it was clear that the growth which had characterized St. John’s for nearly five decades had not subsided, and a second phase of the earlier strategic plan was implemented. The 2001 “Expanding Ministries” project saw construction of an educational building to house the new Lower School and a large multi-purpose auditorium capable of seating 300 for worship services as well as providing badly needed dining and activity space. The former Rectory was converted to offices and meeting rooms and is now the Administrative Office of the Day School. A new connecting “commons” filled the need for a casual social forum.

 

Each of the buildings and renovations – from the 1822 “White Church” to the 2002 “All Saints Hall” – has provided and enhanced a home for the real “church” that is St. John’s – its people. God has been generous with his gifts at this place and it is clear from all that happens here that his Spirit works through these people.

 

To learn more about ths present-day St, John's Episcopal, visit the About Us page.

Old-St

This logo was commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of St. John's Episcopal, in 1972.