In 1910, under the clergy leadership of the nearby Church of the Redeemer, a number of Cedarcroft residents began gathering in nearby homes to pray and to study the Bible together. Soon the mission had a name—the Chapel of the Nativity—and some land, but they still had no building. Fortunately, a summer colony in western Maryland was disbanding, and they offered their chapel to the Episcopal bishop. The building was dismantled, shipped 240 miles by flatcar, and re-erected on Nativity’s present site. The first service was held in the restored building on Christmas Day, 1913.
In 1923 the parish house was built. It included four bowling alleys whose income helped the mission’s bottom line. In 1929, a lawn fête was held as a fundraiser, now known as the June Fair. Meanwhile membership was growing by leaps and bounds—all through the Depression and the Second World War, and especially during the postwar baby boom.
In 1947 the mission was incorporated as the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Cedarcroft. The Cedarcroft School, a private preschool, was established in part of the parish house. The church was enlarged several times and air-conditioned, a new organ was installed, a library was created and an elevator was added.
A church is not a building, however: it is God’s people gathered to worship God and serve their neighbors. The people of Nativity are a diverse lot representing five continents and the entire political spectrum. United in Christ, they have reached out to the poor and elderly, members of the armed services, homeless families, seafarers in the Port of Baltimore and many others.
The Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter
In 1911, the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lutherville. surveyed Govanstown residents’ interest in forming a church. By New Year’s Eve, 1911, a congregation was organized and incorporated. Worship services were held at makeshift sites for the new First English Lutheran Church.
As the congregation grew, its members purchased a lot at the corner of York and Harwood Roads, and ground was broken for a church building in May 1914. In just six months, a splendid gray stone church was dedicated. Four years later, the northern border of Baltimore City was extended, Govanstown became simply Govans, and—because there was already a First English Lutheran Church in Baltimore City—the Govans church was renamed the Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter.
The congregation continued growing. A parsonage was built next to the church. But in 1955, as fuel oil was being delivered, the boiler room exploded. Fire damaged the nave, destroyed the pipe organ, ruined large oil paintings and destroyed the kitchen. Although building a new church in the suburbs was considered, the congregation decided to rebuild. Fourteen months after the fire, they moved into a new building on the same site.
But Govans was changing. The congregation was overwhelmingly white. As other churches abandoned the city, Holy Comforter took a different approach: it reached into the community and welcomed its neighbors. Word gradually spread that this was now a multicultural church.
While facing problems confronting many older mainline churches—aging buildings, declining attendance, and financial strains—Holy Comforter in 2011 celebrated its 100th anniversary with a sense of hope and resolve.
To remain viable, the Holy Comforter decided to sell its building and move a half mile north to join the Church of the Nativity, Cedarcoft. The two congregations entered into an innovative joint ministry and began worshiping together on All Saints Day, November 1, 2015. Although the two congregations remain separate legal entities, their members now worship and minister together, thus enabling both congregations to more effectively carry out their ministries. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the churches believe they are truly better together!
Longer Nativity History
The story of the parish begins on February 20, 1910, when services were first held in private homes in the vicinity of the present church as a missionary effort of the Reverend Charles A. Hensel, rector of the Church of the Redeemer. Later that year, Bishop Paret reserved the name, Chapel of the Nativity, for the new mission, and in 1911 the diocese purchased the land. The present church building was originally a chapel for summer colony inhabitants of private estates in Garrett County, located in western Maryland. When they moved away in 1913, W. McCulloh Brown offered the building to the Bishop, who gave it to Nativity Chapel. The building was dismantled and shipped 240 miles on Western Maryland flatcar to Baltimore and then re-erected at a cost of $12,000. Other parishes donated furnishings, and the first service was held in the still uncompleted church on Christmas Day 1913. When Hensel left in the latter part of 1921 because of growing responsibilities as rector of the Church of the Redeemer, the mission had income of $3,000, debt of $4,500 from construction of the church, and property valued at $27,000.
The Reverend Wesley David Adams was appointed vicar on November 1, 1921. The Adams’ pastorate is the story of the building of the parish house and the struggle to pay for it. Built in 1923 for $77,000 borrowed on the credit of the diocese, the parish house was to be paid for by Nativity Mission primarily from income generated from its four bowling alleys. By 1929, the debt still amounted to $50,000 when the total income of the mission was $10,000. In 1929, an annual lawn fete was held as a fundraiser that has evolved into what is now known as the June Fair. The Great Depression of the 1930s left the mission with reduced income and a huge debt, with little prospect of paying it off. In January 1937, Adams disappointedly resigned even though the number of communicants had doubled during his tenure.
On May 1, 1937, Bishop Helfenstein appointed the Reverend George B. Scriven as Vicar. An unexpected legacy in 1941 and a grant from the Reconstruction and Advance Fund of the Episcopal Church in 1946 enabled the diocese to pay off the remainder of the parish house debt that year. Freedom from debt and growth in membership enabled Nativity to incorporate as a parish in 1947 with Fr. Scriven as the first rector. Also in 1947 a non-parish preschool was begun that still uses the parish house today. With the postwar housing boom and growing number of worshipers taxing seating capacity, the church building was enlarged and financed with a loan paid off in 1969. Growth in church membership caused the addition of a third, family-oriented service.
The Reverend Herman A. diBrandi was called to be Nativity’s second rector in 1971. He led the parish through the transition to the new prayer book and hymnal, incorporated the Holy Eucharist at services, and instituted a program of home communion. During his pastorate, the church building was air-conditioned, a new organ was installed, and a library was created in the parish house.
The Reverend C. Allen Spicer came to Nativity as the third rector on February 1, 1984. During his tenure, the Christian education program was overhauled and a midweek healing service with Bible study was begun. Ecumenical and outreach programs including many volunteers in Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO) services to the poor and elderly were developed. Fr. Spicer was also a member of Diocesan Council, chairman of the Claggett Board, member of the Standing Committee and Deputy to General Convention before retiring.
The Reverend Thomas B. Carter came to Nativity as the fourth rector on November 13, 2000. Outreach ministries included Partners in Care through the Maryland National Guard to care for soldiers in need after returning from war. The Baltimore Interfaith Hospitality Network (BIHN) was successful in helping homeless families get back on their feet. The parish relationship with WORLD, Inc., was strengthened when Fr. Carter led a 2-week mission trip to Liberia. The project to expand parish offices and install an elevator was a tremendous success and was paid for in five years. Nativity celebrated its centennial in 2010 with many special activities throughout the year. Fr. Carter retired on December 31, 2012.
The Reverend T. Stewart Lucas began his ministry at Nativity as Priest-in-Charge on March 17, 2013. After a year of ministry the Vestry discerned along with Bishop Eugene T. Sutton that he was the right person to be called as the fifth rector. His celebration of new ministry took place on May 15, 2015.