In the second half of the 20th century, Memorial Church began in earnest its transformation from a tradition-bound, rather conservative neighborhood church to one that was (and still is) progressive, diverse, and committed to social outreach. The burning issues of the day included race relations, the anti-war effort, improved opportunities for women, assistance for the poor and elderly, youth advocacy, and urban renewal. The parish became involved in all of these issues, and Memorial became known in the community for its activism and outreach.
In December 1859, a group of men at Emmanuel Chapel in Mount Vernon, then Baltimore’s most fashionable neighborhood, met for the purpose of establishing a mission in Bolton Hill, a horse car suburb on the rural fringe of the fast-growing city. The Rev. Charles Ridgely Howard, Memorial’s first rector, presided as the founders laid the cornerstone on July 3, 1860, before any houses stood on the block. Unfortunately, because of the rector’s unexpected death and the uncertainties of war, the building was not open for services until June 12, 1864, when the newly ordained Rev. Osbourne Ingle presided. The wartime vestry was unable to raise the funds for the planned steeple, and so the building stands to this day, without a steeple.
During the parish’s first eighteen years, no rector served longer than five years, but the Rev. George Peterkin (1873-1878) did manage to unite the vestry and steady the finances. In sharp contrast to the tenure of the early rectors, Dr. William Meade Dame, a Virginian who had served in the war, arrived in 1878 and remained at Memorial until his death in January 1923.
Under Dr. Dame’s inspiring leadership, a rectory was acquired, a second floor was added to the parish hall, and numerous improvements were made to the main floor of the church. New programs abounded, and new forms of outreach began. Dr. Dame’s leadership style continued for four more years through his son, Dr. William Page Dame, who after being associate rector, was called to be rector on the death of his father. The latter Dame’s daughter, Josephine, and granddaughter, Jodie deButts, remained members throughout their lives.
The parish grew and prospered immediately following World War II, and in the 1950s helped organize the first Bolton Street Festival (now called the Festival on the Hill). The 1960s saw the erection of new, private market townhouses in Bolton Hill and the construction of Memorial Apartments, a cooperative effort between the parish and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1969, Memorial called the Rev. F. Lyman Farnham as rector, impressed by his imagination and youthful energy as well as his success in reviving an older parish in Horseheads, New York.
The Farnhams moved into the rectory in 1969, at a time when the church’s physical plant was in poor repair. Despite floods, a leaky roof, dangerous wiring, and many other problems, Barney Farnham’s youthful optimism and commitment to progressive social action were clearly demonstrated. He started a Sunday morning experimental Eucharist, followed by a discussion group. He encouraged the expansion of social activities through the parish social club. In addition he personally recruited people he met in the neighborhood, inviting them to become part of a revitalized Memorial Church. His young and growing family helped contribute vibrancy and new life to the parish.
During the 1970s, new liturgical elements were introduced into the traditional service and a food pantry, breakfast program for the poor, counseling center, ecumenical church school, weekly youth talk-in, and an alternative day school all began. The parish attended an annual spiritual renewal weekend, several weekday Eucharists, and learned how to make holiday services special.
In August of 2000, the Rev. Martha N. Macgill moved with her family from South Africa, where she had been priest-in-charge of a parish for several years. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, she was excited to move back to the States. Her commitment to the social issues of our day was strong as well. Martha was dedicated to urban ministry in this neighborhood, including healing wounds from the racism that still exists. She worked across denominational and political divisions to bring about the reign of God here on earth and set a vision for this parish for many years to come. In June of 2014 Martha+ heard a new call – to lead smaller groups in spiritual retreats, and moved on to found a new non-profit to accomplish those ends.
In September of 2014 The Rev. Kristin N. Krantz arrived to take over as Memorial’s Interim Rector. Kristin+ has helped Memorial remain focused on moving forward and solidifying its goals as we navigate this period of transition. We look forward to calling a new Rector in late 2015 or early 2016.
Looking back, it seems certain that the Memorial Church of today would surprise many of those first parishioners of the 1860s and 1870s. They probably would not approve of some of the changes. However, society in general and our city in particular have changed a great deal in 140 years. Memorial has had to transform itself, and we can be both thankful and proud that our predecessors had the courage to adapt. We think that the founders would unhesitatingly appreciate the strong sense of fellowship and the shared joy of our faith that are today the hallmarks of Memorial Episcopal Church.