Tunnels and Things

If you had told me a few months ago that I would be crawling around in tunnels in old church basements I would have laughed at you. I came into this year with a vague understanding of my worksite, that I would be working with different groups and helping them with research and social media. To me that meant something like connecting with people and dealing more with the communications end of things. In a way that is what I am doing, but there is so much more to it!

I am interning at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Diocesan Center, where I work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Maryland Episcopal Environmental Partners, and the Maryland Episcopal Public Policy Network. One of my jobs so far has been to assist the Research and Pilgrimage subcommittee to find some background information into some of the parochial schools in the Diocese. One of these schools is St. Timothy’s, which lead me down a long rabbit hole into the history of not only the school, but the church it used to be attached to.

The former St. Timothy’s Church in Catonsville, now known as St. Hilda’s, had an interesting history in terms of slavery and the Civil War. The church was founded in 1844, in a small community  that was surrounded in large by farms and summer estates. The church was patroned by John Glenn. He was a district court judge and a southern sympathizer.

St. Timothy’s also owned a school adjacent to the church. It began as St Timothy’s Hall, a military church school started by the first rector Libertus Van Bokkelen. There it educated John Wilkes Booth from 1852-1853. Booth was baptized at St Timothy’s and kept in contact with Van Bokkelen, referring to him as “his old rector”. The students at the school were mainly southern supporters and would rebel against Van Bokkelen. Van Bokkelen on the other hand was a firm abolitionist. This is where things get interesting, because despite the parish’s southern leanings, it is possible that the church itself may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. The rector of the church had informed us of a tunnel underneath the church that lead towards the rectory. The tunnel, on top of the history, caught our attention and we made plans to check it out.

A group of us from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission walked through the grounds and all through the other buildings first to check out the property and get a feel for the place. We checked boiler rooms and hatches that lead to pipes, looking for signs of a tunnel. Then we came to the sanctuary. There we paused our search of the tunnel to admire the beauty of the sanctuary. The old stain glass windows and ornate altar were awe-inspiring in themselves, but what really struck me was the sheer history of the building. The pews in naive are the original pews placed in the church almost 200 years ago, minus a few that had been removed or altered for sound equipment. It is incredible to think that people have been worshiping in this place for that long. It is also incredible to think about how much we have changed as a society since then.

I was struck again by this feeling as we ventured down into the undercroft and finally found our tunnel. I climbed back as far as I could, and could see that the tunnel stretched on beyond me. Again I was reminded that they did not have the convenience of modern day technology. The only things they had to build that tunnel were shovels and determination. It was by sheer willpower that they made that tunnel exist. And in doing so they may have saved countless lives and helped to change the course of human history.

Down in that basement you could also see where the church has been expanded, where it grew to fill the need of an ever-growing parish. You can see where stones have been replaced and where brick and cement were added later to help stabilize the structure. To me this patchwork of construction is a reminder that the church is a living body that grows and expands as we have need of it. We also grow in ways that help change the world. From our base we can create offshoots, like a simple tunnel, that even though they may seem small or insignificant, can change the course of human history. It was so humbling to be down there among the stones and the dirt and to really understand what we are called to do as Christians. There is a banner on the back of a church that I pass on my way to work that really says it all: “Love God, Love your Neighbor, Change the World”.

John Wilkes Booth's record of baptism in the parish register

John Wilkes Booth’s record of baptism in the parish register

The tunnel under the church.

The tunnel under the church.

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