The church on the hill. The hill that used to be where the fort stood back in the French and Indian war days. The fort where they dug trenches for the troops to walk through without risk of drawing enemy fire, trenches that were simply covered up by the church built above in 1850. Emmanuel Parish church in Cumberland Maryland has a history that can simply not be matched by many churches in this country.
Imagine a church located up above the hardscrabble town down by the river. Just across the river, a few hundred yards away, was Virginia. It was a common path for those traveling the underground railroad to take advantage of the tunnels underneath the church. Even though Maryland was a slave state, just a few miles to the north was the famous Mason-Dixon line and the free state of Pennsylvania. Today, the tunnels serve to store electrical switchgear, and the guts of the HVAC system. But always with an ear towards the past, and the footsteps of those who long ago passed through these trenches on their way to a hoped-for freedom.
My family was able to hear about the history of this church and learn the stories from its docent, Ron Growden. It was wonderful to hear him tell the stories and hear his descriptions of the church and its wonderful Tiffany windows and altar. As in many older main-line Protestant churches, the wealth of the church in the past still shines through the memorial gifts given long ago. Only this time, the gifts were manifested in three large stained glass windows commissioned from the Tiffany company. A scene showing the adoration of the shepherds was built, with the window aimed to capture the sun from the east, intended to direct the morning light of the sun through the image of the Christmas star above the stable. Subtle shadings of blue in the Virgin’s dress were made by increasing the thickness of the glass, making the garment come alive.
In the rear of the church, the windows represented the second coming, with angels carrying horns matched by the trumpet en chamade pipes extending perpendicular to the rear wall.
But for me, the real highlight of the windows was the one depicting the story of Rizpah. Though I am relatively familiar with the bible, I was unaware of her story. How she was a concubine of Saul, and had bore him two sons. How when David took over the throne, he gave Rizpah’s sons up with the other male descendents of Saul to the Gibeonites, and they tortured and killed them. Then Rizpah stood guard over their corpses both day and night to prevent their bodies from being desecrated by animals. In the depiction in glass, her image was borrowed from the statue in New York Harbor, and she held a torch in her hand that lit the ground around her and on the bodies of her sons suspended from crosses. The light that emanated from her torch was golden, and soft, but through Tiffany’s artistry, it becomes a striking focal point for the wall. It is difficult to turn your eyes away from the Art Deco influenced glass portrayal of a strong woman.
Though the church has an extensive past, and the money available to the church in the past was evident in the art work made available for future generations, the present state of the church is similar to many other old main-line Protestant churches. Ron told us about the efforts to make the church part of a National Park Service site to commemorate the underground railroad, which would help to off-load some of the support costs for the building. But when we came back to the church the next day on Sunday morning, the morning of the annual meeting for the parish, the attendance was only slightly more than what we experience in our own parish church in Charleston, West Virginia. St. John’s Charleston shares a long history as a flagship downtown church in an Appalachian city worn down by deindustrialization. It too has vivid portrayals in stained glass, although it does not have anything like Tiffany windows to share. But the attendance at services continues to slide, and it seems like the type of religious service it offers is less and less desired as our nation continues its secularization.
Our son was outed at the church that day. He is actually an organist, and has lived in the area for over three years without having revealed that side of his skills to the community of organists. That is a community that is very welcoming, since there are fewer and fewer young organists coming along. Whether he takes advantage of the opportunity and begins an association with this church, I don’t know, but it never hurts to give a gentle guiding touch in a direction that his parents think will help him in his future life.
I wish to express my appreciation to the church and to its website, for the pictures used in this post. The church’s website is https://www.emmanuelparishofmd.org/