Closure of 166-year-old church in South Baltimore ‘the end of an era in that corner of the kingdom’

Rev. Lowell S. Thompson, 85, who has been senior pastor of Saints Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church since 1962. The church is closing on Sunday. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

At the end of the 19th century, as Baltimore’s population of German-born immigrants peaked at more than 40,000, there was plenty of need for German-speaking churches in the city.

German immigrants had made a success of Zion Church on what is now Saratoga Avenue. Holy Cross parish in Federal Hill was thriving, and so was St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Highlandtown.

Generations later, much of Baltimore’s German-American community has moved on, and a stalwart congregation of that era is about to close its doors.

Saints Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church, which has operated in one form or another at the corner of Hanover and Hamburg streets in South Baltimore for 166 years, will hold its final service Sunday.

The Rev. Lowell Thompson, senior pastor since 1962, will preside over that service, with longtime music director David Moore performing celebratory music on the congregation’s 120-year-old Roosevelt organ.

To the Rev. William Gohl, bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the closure marks the turning of a page.

“Saints Stephen and James has had a salutary influence for a long, long time,” he said. “We’ll miss the wide-open doors and the bells that sound each week, but also their presence in the community.

“It’s the end of an era in that corner of the kingdom,” he said.

Thompson said church membership has declined gradually, but steadily, over the decades, falling by 10 or 15 people per year.

A congregation that drew about 1,000 people per week in 1900, when more than 11 percent of the city population were German speakers. Today, the church has fewer than 30 regular attendees.

More and more members have relocated to the suburbs, Thompson said, and as time passes, fewer seem willing to deal with the inconveniences involved in traveling to the city.

Fear of crime in the church’s South Baltimore neighborhood has been one factor, particularly for an aging membership, Thompson said.

But another feature of the church dating back to it founding has also presented a problem: When it was established as the German Evangelical Lutheran Saint Stephen Congregation, nearly everyone who attended lived within a few blocks and walked to services. As a result, the church never acquired its own parking lot.

Now Thompson, 85, is one of only two members who live in South Baltimore. Everyone else must park in Shofer’s Furniture lot across the street, and that’s only available Sundays.

“People are afraid to drive in and walk around the neighborhood,” he said.

The diminished congregation finally faced up to the reality that it can no longer meet the financial demands of maintaining an older building, which run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, Thompson said

Lutheran doctrine specifies that it’s up to a congregation and its clergymembers to make the decision to close a church. After discussing the possiblity for years, Saints Stephen and James members and their longtime pastor voted to make the move in a meeting last November.

The decision marks the end of one of the oldest continously active congregations in South Baltimore — a church that got its start as a German-speaking congregation in 1852, didn’t add its first English-speaking services until 1893 and absorbed Saint James Evangelical Lutheran Church, an English-speaking congregation that stood directly across the street for decades, in 1962.

The closure also comes at a time when the number of Americans who describe themselves as religious has been in decline for years, and congregations have long been dwindling.

Mainline Protestantism has been hit especially hard hit, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America at the forefront of those losses.

The largest and most theologically progressive Lutheran denomination in the United States, the ELCA claimed 5.2 million baptized members when it was formed out of three smaller Lutheran groups in 1988. That number fell to 3.5 million in 2016, a drop of one-third.

The Delaware-Maryland synod, which governs more than 170 congregations in its two-state territory, has had mixed success in dealing with the trend. The synod recently consolidated eight of its struggling Baltimore churches into three.

Yet even as Gohl closed three others in 2018, he has opened five. In a way, the new churches call to mind how Baltimore’s early Lutheran congregations reached out to the German-born immigrants that were flooding into the area at the time, many if them fleeing the effects of wars or revolutions in Europe.

Each of the five new congregations was founded to serve a newer group of Baltimore’s immigrants — Burmese, West African, Liberian, Latino and Asian.

“The Lutheran Church is an immigrant church. We’re just discovering new ways of serving the neighbors who are coming to Baltimore today,” Gohl said.

It didn’t help Saints Stephen and James that four other Lutheran churches remain active nearby: Martini Lutheran Church, Salem Lutheran Church, Christ Lutheran Church and Zion Church of the City of Baltimore are all within a mile of its location in Sharp Leadenhall — and each has better parking.

A panel of church members and synod administrators will determine the fate of the church building, a late Victorian Gothic structure owned by the congregation that features salmon-colored brick, marble trim and a square bell tower.

Gohl said it would be hard to acquire the permits needed to revive the building as a church, given its lack of dedicated parking lot.

But the panel has been approached by investors interested in converting the building into apartments, a restaurant or even a brewery.

The Maryland Historic Trust named it a state historic site in 1976, and any renovations would have to satisfy state standards for a historic building.

Gohl said the loss of the church means saying farewell to its decades of service to the surrounding community; service that continued with enthusiasm even as the neighborhood changed around it.

That service included a music program which, under Moore’s guidance, brought in an array of talented performers from across the area and presented frequent Sunday concerts.

The bishop said he’ll also miss the special bond between the congregants and Thompson, a “faithful servant” and the only pastor the current church has known.

That said, Gohl added, closing one church in a saturated part of town will free up resources for the new and growing congregations in the area.

That process, he said, reflects perfectly the teachings of the church, which dates back far longer than the history of Saints Stephen and James.

“It’s a tenet of Christian faith that unless something dies, there is no resurrection or new life,” he said. “Sometimes churches outlive their season. Maybe now their season is to use their resources to bring about some newness to the city and the larger life of world.”

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