Historic Church Surging To New Community Role

BERLIN – St. Martin’s
Church, which has endured for 254 years north of Berlin, is becoming part of
the community once again with new opening hours and special events scheduled.

A sturdy brick building
along the Route 113 off ramp leading to Route 589, the Episcopal church
remained in use for over 200 years, only closing its doors on regular services
in the 1960s. Then the colonial era structure was locked and left to nature.

In 1994, with the old
brick walls bowing out and overgrown with green vines, a group of locals
stepped in and saved the building.

“It was in such a state
of disrepair the roof was caved in, birds roosted in here … the pictures are so
sad because the windows were boarded up,” said Sherrie Beckstead, president of
the St. Martin’s Church Foundation.

Restoration of St.
Martin’s Episcopal Church began in the mid-1990s, with the major work completed
in 1999.

“I think we got to it
just in time,” said Beckstead.

Maintenance of the 18th
century building is ongoing, said Foundation board member Sean Rayne, who
focuses on the building and grounds.

“When I was a kid, I
remember it all being grown up with vines and weeds and things,” said Rayne.

Over the last 10 years,
the church has been open for Christmas Eve church services as well as weddings
and baptisms.

“We want it used in the
community,” Beckstead said.

Now the foundation is
kicking off regular opening hours during the summer and a speaker series.

The church will be open
to visitors every Saturday in June, July and August, from 11 a.m to 1 p.m.

Theresa Bruner, vice
president of the foundation, who attended services at St. Martin’s Church into
her early teens, has set up a volunteer docent program to show visitors through
the church.

“Essentially, it’s an
open house every Saturday,” said Rayne.

The new speaker series
begins this weekend, with the first event, featuring architectural historian
Paul Baker Touart, on Sunday, June 13, at 4:30 p.m. Touart will speak on the
St. Martin’s Church restoration, his new book on Somerset County and other
restoration project’s on the Eastern Shore.

On Aug. 29, Michael
Olmert will speak on architecture and worship in the Stuart church, followed in
September by tales of the Eastern Shore.

The foundation will also
hold its first annual St. Martin’s Day Celebration weekend Nov. 11-14, with an
open house, fundraisers and the Old St Martin’s Day Festival at the church,
concluded by an 18th century church service on Nov. 14.

The simple church building
boasts original brick floors, original yellow pine panels in the pews, a barrel
vaulted ceiling, a high pulpit modeled on the original and a balcony once used
by slaves. There are also three priests buried under the brick floor.

The foundation uses a
hand-forged key, a reproduction made by a blacksmith from Williamsburg, to lock
the church using the original lock box.

Meticulous vestry
records and a lawsuit over how pews were to be built when the church was
constructed have provided strong documentary evidence for the restoration. 

“The record keeping is
unbelievable,” said Beckstead. “We were able to find all the original pew

The back wall of the
balcony is covered in historic graffiti, which the foundation has chosen to
leave in place as part of the church’s history, chiefly of signed names. The
oldest dated signature goes back to 1904.

People arrived for
services by foot, carriage and boat via Windmill Creek.

Services were still
being held regularly in the church through the 1960s, but gradually, services
became monthly, then yearly, then stopped altogether as churchgoers moved to
more modern, closer structures.

With the restoration
complete, the focus now is on maintenance, an at times difficult prospect in a
254-year-old building with no heat or air conditioning.

Last winter, the
extremely wet conditions caused the restored plaster on the eastern interior
wall of the church to delaminate and slough off. The foundation will leave the
wall alone until research shows how to fix the problem for the long term.

“It’s still kind of a
work in progress,” said Rayne.

Future plans include
raising funds for an auxiliary building, allowing for more events at the site.

“We do feel this is such
a significant part of the history here,” said Beckstead.