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Now, Walls Won't Come Tumbling Down

1760s St. Mary's Church Completes Restoration

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page SM03

In the 1760s, many pounds of tobacco and sterling paid for the construction of a brick church in a St. Mary's County field.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church didn't change in appearance much over the centuries -- it still had the pew boxes, the flagstone floors, the arched ceiling, the painting behind the altar.


At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, the roof was replaced, rotten wood was removed and beams were strengthened. The choir loft was made usable, and an exterminator vanquished bugs. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

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But the church, with its twin towers, began wearing away. The roof leaked, water dissolved some of the mortar, and termites all but hollowed out some of the wooden support columns.

"The choir loft was being held up by prayer," said Karen Everett, a parishioner who helped lead an effort to restore the church. Damage was so extensive, she said, that "had it been left unattended, the building would have crumbled."

So a large structural renovation was begun, a million-dollar project that startled a family of raccoons, displaced a black snake and reminded those involved of the long history of their little church.

Since 1634, when the Ark and the Dove arrived in St. Mary's with settlers for a new colony based on the principle of religious freedom, people have been building churches in St. Mary's. So the county has many old chapels, mostly Catholic and Episcopalian, said Teresa Wilson, county historic preservation planner.

This winter the St. Andrew's congregation celebrated the project's completion and cheered as parishioners returned to the church after nearly a year of worshiping in the nearby wooden parish hall.

Services felt different in the makeshift 1980s space, said John McKendrew, who helped manage the renovation. "The church has those fantastic acoustics, the vaulted ceiling, the beautiful altar, beautiful woodwork," he said. "You do feel like you're in a much more reverent spot."

When the restoration began several years ago, church members discovered it would be far more expensive than they anticipated. Engineers found a lot of termite damage in structural support columns and immediately stopped use of the choir loft.

The loft, where slaves from a nearby plantation once worshiped, accommodated a big organ as well as the choir and hung over pews.

"The engineer was absolutely appalled," McKendrew said. "It's a testimony to how well the church was built. The reverend said it's divine intervention."

The roof was replaced, rotten wood removed, beams strengthened. Mice and squirrels were sent scurrying. An extermination company donated bug-zapping services. Workers fixed the foundation where oak roots had burrowed in. They painted the inside. And they shored up support for the choir loft.

Members of the 100-or-so-family congregation expect to be donating to the church restoration fund for many years, Everett said, and are hoping for grants because there is still work to be done. McKendrew said they expect nearly $140,000 from a grant just approved.

St. Andrew's looks much the same, with a Palladian window over the narrow front doors, two towers and fluted columns supporting the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

As close as the church is to the busy roads and growth and change in and around California, it still seems sheltered on its hill. Thin centuries-old gravestones lean in the cemetery by the old brick church, where light filters through the stained glass in the windows.

On top of the towers by the narrow front doors, two gold-leaf copper crosses glint in the sun. One of the roofers made them, modeled on the old wooden crosses that came down. The parish couldn't afford them, McKendrew said, so the contractor gave them to the church.

Parishioners did as much as they could afford to make the church safe for their families and to protect things like the rare carved, painted reredos behind the altar.

Now, they hope, it will be too dry inside for the swarms of ladybugs they had come to expect every year. It will be strong enough to stand for many years to come.

And they planned ahead. In the past, workers took chain saws to wood to put in air-conditioning units, damaging support pieces; now repairs will be done with the approval of restoration engineers. "Hopefully we won't get in the state of repair it got in," McKendrew said. "From now until eternity we'll follow this maintenance plan."


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