Few church buildings in America seem so historically blessed as the Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore. The original congregation was founded in 1772, thus becoming the first Methodist Church in America. The present 1884 structure (the congregation’s fifth) is Romanesque in style and considered an architectural gem—the first church designed by the renowned architect Stanford White.
But now, in a transitional neighborhood, Lovely Lane is falling apart. “There have been days when I’ve preached with the sound of water dripping in the background,” says the Rev. Emora T. Brannan, 41, its pastor since 1975. Emergency roof repairs costing $260,000 have stemmed the leaks, but signs of advanced decay are everywhere. Walls and ceilings crumble; the church’s prized Louis C. Tiffany stained-glass windows are chipped. Its 19th-century heating system with wooden ducts is rotting, and its vintage 1906 electrical system is hardly better off. “On gloomy days,” says the pastor, “you can’t run an electrical heater without blowing a fuse.”
With ingenuity born of desperation, Pastor Brannan and the church’s restoration committee embarked on an audacious fund-raising drive. First, a survey determined that a complete renovation would cost $8 million. Then, it was noted that the United Methodist Church, by far the largest of the five major American Methodist branches, has 9.6 million U.S. members. Now if every member contributed just $1, that would bring in enough money for Lovely Lane’s restoration with something left over to cover campaign costs and future contingencies.
When fund raising began nearly two years ago, there were hopes that Lovely Lane’s history would have a special appeal to fellow Methodists. After all, its roots date back to pre-Revolution times, when Joseph Pilmore, a preacher appointed by the English founder of the faith, John Wesley, organized the Baltimore City Methodist Society in 1772. Then on Dec. 24, 1784, 60 Methodist preachers convened a Christmas conference at the original Lovely Lane Meeting House to form an independent church. (That first meeting house was on a roadway named for colonial farmer John Lovely; today’s church building is located 23 blocks from the original site.)
Today, to the dismay of Brannan and his congregation, their appeal is falling short of its goal. Despite an endorsement by the 1980 General Conference of United Methodists and repeated mailings, only four percent of the 38,500 or so churches in the U.S. have responded. While $886,000 has been raised, the flow of monthly contributions, which averaged $20,000 at the start, has dropped to $8,000 per month.
This past summer Brannan, his wife, Nancy, 36, and son Patrick, 10, traveled 4,000 miles through 11 states to publicize Lovely Lane’s plight. Still, the pastor warned on a recent Sunday, “unless things take a decisive turn, Lovely Lane will have difficulty as a functioning congregation in 1984.”
Nancy Brannan admits her husband is “a natural worrier.” A native Baltimorean and son of an accountant, he graduated from Johns Hopkins, earned his doctorate in religion from Duke and served in several churches before assuming the Lovely Lane post. Ahead, he hopes, may be a small miracle: CBS is planning a live national telecast of Christmas Eve services from Lovely Lane. With the building decorated in wreaths and garlands, says the pastor, “The church really looks its best.” And, of course, candlelight puts no strain on its ancient wiring.