Thursday, August 20, 2009

Church of the Red Fox

After you got out of Washington, heading toward Baltimore, it got prettier and prettier as it got hillier and hillier. Thinking back, Maryland looked more like a classic slice of English countryside than a classic slice of English countryside actually looks today. It was horsy country, and nearly every big holding had literally miles of white rail fences, with neat paddocks and immaculate barns and outhouses….Maryland was one of our very earliest "civilized" states, I suppose, and the Englishmen who followed the Calverts had plenty of time—and not too many angry Injuns—to make it into a graceful replica of what they remembered back home in England.

—Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

Ruark's observation about the English nature of the Maryland countryside holds especially true for the Green Spring, Worthington, and Western Run Valleys of northern Baltimore County. This is fox country. Here, on Butler Road (part of the Horses and Hounds Scenic Byway) near Glyndon, Maryland, is the lovely St. John's Episcopal Church. Or, to give it its full name, St. John's Church in the Valley, Western Run Parish.

[Sundial on the stone wall surrounding the grounds.]

The parish was founded in 1800, having previously been part of St. Thomas' Parish just to the south at Garrison. Initially, services were held in a schoolhouse, but a church was begun in 1816 and consecrated in 1818. On Christmas Day in 1867, fire came to the St. John's campus: the stone rectory, built in 1842, was untouched, but the church itself burned to the ground; only the steeple bell and the cornerstone were salvaged. Undaunted, the rector made plans to rebuild; the cornerstone was re-laid in 1869 and the new church, a stone building in Gothic-revival style with a hundred-foot spire, was completed the following year.

[Pretty as only the Anglicans build 'em.]

"Since the church’s resurrection in 1869", according to a parish history, "the membership count and activity within its walls has swung from vibrant to moribund and back several times." The account goes on to say:

…by the turn of the century the number of registered communicants had dropped to 15, and by 1915 the church had, in effect, ceased to function. Shortly thereafter, however, it was brought back to life by the unlikely influence of the Greenspring Hunt Club which moved its base of operations to Glyndon, Maryland, close by the church grounds, in an effort to find more hospitable territory for its cross-country chases. Hunters and horsemen followed, revitalizing the countryside and the church parish simultaneously.

For many years, St. John's has held a Blessing of the Hounds after services on Thanksgiving morning. The Green Spring Valley Hounds (organised 1892) assemble in a field across Butler Road to receive a blessing of the foxhounds as well as the horses and riders, all congregants praying for a safe and successful hunt. As noted in a church bulletin, members of the hunt are still active at St. John's as well as active in preserving open land in Baltimore County—one reason this area has been able to retain its rural character despite its proximity to a major city and the resulting development pressures.

[Sorry, the animals have to stay out here.]

When I'm able to travel the week of Thanksgiving, it's usually to the North American Falconers' Association field meet, so it may be quite some time before I attend the Blessing of the Hounds at St. John's. But I'll try to remember to send a prayer, pagan though it may be, for the welfare of the hunt and their quarry. Long may the chase continue.

[Carved into a timber on the churchyard's front gate: "Enter into His gates with thanksgiving."]

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