Road Trip

The Sacred Sights of Havre de Grace

Sunday, December 16, 2007

WHERE: Havre de Grace, Md.

WHY: Open houses of the holy, waterfowl play and bay sharks.

HOW FAR: Two miles from start to finish.

With only nine days until Christmas, most folks are cramming into temples of commerce and amassing in malls. But this season, experience the true holiday spirit in Havre de Grace's historic churches.

Despite its small size, the Maryland town boasts 30 places of worship clustered on a bucolic grid by the Chesapeake Bay. For churchgoers, it makes for a pleasant walking tour any time of the year, but especially so Dec. 30, when the Susquehanna Ministerium will host the ninth annual Christmas Open House of Historic 19th and 20th Century Churches. During the five-church hop, clergy and volunteers will relate the history of the stately structures, followed by refreshments and music.

Havre de Grace grew up along the Susquehanna Flats, a meeting point of the Susquehanna River and the bay. The fertile area attracted countless fish, fowl and, during the Revolutionary War, Frenchmen. Around 1780, a soldier from the Marquis de Lafayette's entourage remarked that the region looked a bit like Le Havre de Grace, a seaport in northwest France. The French phrase for "harbor of grace" stuck, even after the town was incorporated in 1785.

When the British invaded during the War of 1812, the redcoats razed the town but spared its church, St. John's Episcopal, which still stands today. The wildlife also survived, and Havre de Grace made a fortune off its smoked and canned exports, which were shipped inland via the Susquehanna's burgeoning lock and canal system.

By the second half of the 1800s, more local congregations had formed. Around the turn of the century, four churches were built in the town center. Three of the new structures were constructed of Port Deposit granite, a hand-hewn gray stone flecked with brown and black and striped with white quartz. Other churches were made of more common red brick, with heavy stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible.

Despite the large concentration of churches in central Havre de Grace, the community is not particularly religious, according to Ed Heydt, pastor of Havre de Grace United Methodist Church. "It's not a churchgoing town," he says. But that just means more pew space for visitors coming to gawk at these heavenly places.

-- Ben Chapman

Havre de Grace church open house: Dec. 30, 2-4 p.m. Free. Obtain brochures from Havre de Grace Methodist Church (101 S. Union Ave., 410-939-2464) or the Havre de Grace Tourism and Visitor Center (450 Pennington Ave., 800-851-7756).

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