All Saints Episcopal Church has stood, in some form, in Avenue for the last 376 years. The unassuming building, nestled off Oakley Road, has seen better days — termites, unchecked over the years, have compromised the integrity of the building, where a makeshift ramp leads to a neglected structure of rotting wood.
Still, the ghost of the church’s glory days can be seen in the stained glass windows, and as local builder Don Cropp said, it stands unique among other county churches for its all-wood structure, the “only old frame structure” amid mostly brick buildings, he said.
A small but devoted group of parishioners is rallying to save the current church building, built in the 1840s. In past decades, the congregation has made similar petitions to the community to restore parts of the church. In 2002, the church successfully raised $25,000 to cosmetically restore the interior after using funds that had been saved for years to address the old paint on the exterior.
This year, with 18 pledging members who make recurring donations, they are struggling with how to move forward with the renovations, a feat complicated by a schism among parishioners over how to save the historic county landmark.
In March, Dave Hudson, former junior warden of the church, contacted Cropp, a local builder who has volunteered to repair or reconstruct several historic buildings in St. Mary’s, including the old Drayden African-American Schoolhouse and Blackistone Lighthouse, to see what could be done to salvage All Saints Episcopal.
“This can be fixed,” Cropp said in an interview. “I was gonna make it better than it ever was [with] a stronger foundation than the day it was first built.”
Cropp was prepared to begin construction, with a crew and some materials. He wanted to create a new foundation, tear out the rotted pine floor and replace it with oak, fix the walls, redo the pews and replace the church’s beams with thick oak.
“The most beautiful, oldest buildings in our town are our churches,” Cropp said. “I just don’t think we have any to spare.”
Cropp, who volunteered to fix the church pro bono, said the parish would still have to pay some costs for the needed materials, but didn’t get as far as creating a budget for the parishioners.
He is now waiting for disagreement among church members to be resolved — infighting that led to Hudson’s resignation as junior warden last week, and resulted in the parish priest’s departure from the church.
“To be honest, I’ve become disenchanted with it,” Hudson said last Wednesday. He had attended the church since 1984.
Hudson now attends services at Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Chaptico, led by the Rev. Chris Jubinski, the priest who had performed services for All Saints. Those services, which have been held at All Saints Parish Hall since last December, will not continue until the parish is able to secure another priest.
Jubinski did not respond to requests for comment.
Disagreement among parishioners mostly revolves around whether to tear down the church and construct a chapel from pieces of the building, like the pews and stained glass windows, or repair it without threatening the existing structure of the building.
Cropp sees the reconstruction as relatively simple. “They’re not hard to put back together,” he said.
An engineer, hired by a parishioner, concluded in a structural report that the church would be too expensive to salvage, and must be completely torn down and replaced, Cropp said. He disagreed with the report.
“With the money they spent on the engineer, we would have had the main structure back together,” Cropp said. “It’s just some wood and some nails.”
“Don says he can fix it, and I believe he can,” Hudson said.
To some members, the issue is not whether or not the building can be repaired, but if the parish can maintain the church once it’s operational.
“Of course, anything can be repaired,” Lynn Burton, senior warden of the church, said. “But even if it was rebuilt, what would be the ongoing future?”
Parish numbers have dwindled steadily over the years, Burton said, adding that many of the current members have attended the church for decades, and children have not attended services in more than three years. Parishioners who want to see the church rebuilt see younger members as the key to its longevity.
Both sides of the disagreement contacted the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to seek “answers to the very important, emotional issues being faced by our parishioners,” Burton said in an email. “The development of a chapel was the outcome of those deliberations” between the diocese and the vestry, she said.
Parishioner Kay Brownrigg “fell in love with the church” when she started providing music for its nondenominational Bible school around 35 years ago, she said. Her husband, Charles Brownrigg, said he and his wife want to “build [the church] back and” work on “bringing parishioners into the fold.”
“We’d love to see youth back in our church,” Kay Brownrigg said.
The church for the last four years has not held vacation Bible school, which used to be attended by kids “even from out of town,” Charles Brownrigg said. “We’d like to get back to that.”
For the Brownriggs, repairing the church structure is the first step in rebuilding its congregation.
“Once we do that, we can go forward with our plans,” Charles Brownrigg said. “We’re starting over, for all intents and purposes.”
Other members, like Burton, see the construction of a new chapel using pieces of the existing building “that are so precious and other parts we want to hold onto,” she said. The chapel wouldn’t be used for Sunday services, but could be utilized for weddings, baptisms and funerals.
“There were some that disagreed passionately with that idea,” Burton said.
All Saints was originally constructed as a chapel of ease by Dr. Thomas Gerard, an original settler of St. Mary’s County, for his Anglican wife. It became a parish in 1750.
“Churches play such a role in our history in St. Mary’s County,” Cropp said. “I know they’re struggling to maintain these old buildings, but they’re landmarks. This is the key to our social religious history … It’d just be terrible to let this go.”
The treasurer, warden and an elected body of seven parishioners tasked with overseeing maintenance of the church, will be elected Sept. 9 for three-year terms. Parishioners who want to see the church renovated, like Nancy Lord Zearfoss, see the election as their opportunity to get the building up and running again.
“It’s really been a nightmare for most of us,” Burton said. “We care very much about the church. We’re being accused that we don’t care about it, but we do.”
There’s “no blame here,” Zearfoss said of parishioners who would rather see the building torn down and rebuilt. “They just see it differently than we do.”
“There’s so much history [at the church],” Hudson said. “I have a son buried there. A lot of people have buried family there.”