Every once in a while, I like to take a look at other planned communities in our area and compare how we and how they dealt with certain challenges in urban planning. Take churches, for example. No American town would be complete without its full complement of churches, shrines, synagogues and/or mosques, depending on the makeup of the population. A preconceived and designed community, therefore, must take the real estate requirements of faith seriously when laying out a town.
In Columbia, that middle-class paradise laid down in the optimistic, somewhat flighty 1970s, the urban architects conceived of a simple, if rather inelegant, solution to this issue. In the middle of each artificial “village” in Columbia was a rather stark building with the uninspiring name of “Interfaith Center.” These centers essentially were auditoriums in which different religious sects could meet at different times and practice their services.
I went to Catholic Masses at one of these centers. I also went to a few Bar Mitzvahs and one Protestant wedding there. With the construction of the interfaith center, Columbia’s planners did away with the confusing tangle of land requirements of various faiths and, more importantly, managed to control the architecture of the house of worship so that their utopian plan wouldn’t be marred by tasteless and archaic steeples, domes or minarets.
It was a particularly soulless solution, even for Columbia — itself a monument to all things generic, mediocre and bland.
About 60 years earlier, the founders of Dundalk also wrestled with the thorny issue of religious freedom in a regimented town plan. Their solution also involved something of an interfaith center, although, perhaps because Dundalk was laid out in a less fanciful, more practical time, the planners weren’t so stupid as to think that people would gladly accept the temporary necessity of such a center permanently.
Long before the creation of Dundalk, a small Presbyterian church stood in St. Helena. This house of worship was the offshoot of a Sunday school program in the neighborhood originally established by Patapsco Methodist Episcopal in 1896. Later in the same year some type of falling out occurred between Patapsco Methodist’s new pastor and the folks in St. Helena who ran the Sunday school. Without a church’s patronage, the little school could die, so its advocates attracted the attention of some prominent Presbyterians in Baltimore. These church elders agreed to take the little school under the wing of the Presbytery.
In 1897, the Presbyterians built a small church in St. Helena to house the school and serve a growing local congregation. But the little church never had the resources to expand or provide a full complement of religious functions. For 20 years, it held only an evening service.
The fortunes of the church were to change when the United States prepared for its entry into World War I. Bethlehem Steel’s plan to construct the new town of Dundalk would eventually create homes for thousands of workers nearby. Construction sped up when the federal government took over the building project in 1917 as part of the war effort.
Baltimore-area church leaders soon realized that the thousands of workers soon to arrive would need extensive and varied worship facilities so, contrary to much of European history, representatives of the various sects sat down and worked out a deal.
The Baltimore Federation of Churches prepared a report that recommended the expansion of the facilities of the existing Presbyterian church into a structure that all local Christian faiths could use until their own churches were completed. Bethlehem Steel supported this project by donating land, and the Presbyterians built a grand edifice at Willow Spring Road and St. Helena Ave. in 1920. In a nod to the ecumenical spirit of the place, they named it simply the Community Church.
The original intent of this building explains what I have always found mysterious about it: It doesn’t look like a church. Apparently, it wasn’t intended to. The Presbyterians planned on building a more traditional church elsewhere (which they eventually did on Merritt Boulevard), and the old facility was to become a social and community center. As a result, the architects who designed it chose a plan that looks much more like a grand meeting hall rather than a church with a steeple, an apse and a nave.
But the Depression changed the plans. The Community Church continued to serve interfaith needs throughout the 1930s, as other sects were unable to complete their own churches. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s, when the last non-Presbyterian group withdrew to its own house of worship, that the congregation renamed the place the Dundalk Presbyterian Church.
These worshipers moved to Merritt Boulevard in 1957. The First Baptist Church of Dundalk bought the structure in 1958 and has been there ever since, expanding and improving the property as necessary.
So the old building never got to be the nondenominational community center its planners might have intended. But it did get to remain a unique member of Dundalk’s long list of impressive and inspirational churches. And that’s better than an interfaith center any day.
(First published in 2002)