By Jessie Newburn
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the charming stone church with a bright red door on the corner of 6th and Main streets, is celebrating its 175th anniversary on Sept. 16.
Louisa Snowden Capron established the church in 1848, with her own money. St. Philip’s was one of the first churches in the region to have an interracial cemetery when it was founded, one of the first churches to have female priests starting in the 1980s, and one of the comparatively earlier churches blessing same-sex marriages in 2013.
While these positions may seem commonplace today, they describe the character of St. Phillip’s over generations.
Rev. Robert Bunker, who will be installed as rector during the 175th anniversary celebration said, “When I was in seminary school, we were encouraged to visit about a dozen or so Episcopalian churches, and get a sense of them. The minute I walked into St. Philip’s. I immediately felt a sense of home and I felt welcomed. I knew St. Philip’s was where I wanted to serve.”
Being a welcoming congregation is at the heart of St. Philip’s mission — the church has a long history of reaching out to the community. In the 1920s, when few people had cars and life was more local, the church’s basketball court and performance stage were open to everyone.Today St. Philip’s routinely opens its doors for Toastmasters and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Laurel Advocacy & Referral Services, which serves local low-income and homeless people, was founded by members of the parish, and Elizabeth House (similar to a modern-day soup kitchen, which feeds the homeless and working poor in the Laurel area) was also founded by a church member. Today, approximately 80 people a day receive a hot dinner and a bag lunch from Elizabeth House from its location on Gorman Avenue.
Other than a hiatus during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Philip’s has been providing the community with Thanksgiving dinners, serving as many as 375 people annually, according to Bunker. The church spares no expense to make Thanksgiving festive and welcoming.
St Philip’s, along with other local churches, participates in the Winter Shelter program, a free offering that provides food and shelter, along with laundry services and showers, to unhoused people in the community.
St. Philip’s also runs a pantry to address food insecurity in the community. The Little Chapel Food Pantry provides basics to as many as 70 families once a month.
With its 175th anniversary slogan of “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” the church’s true nature — past, present and future — rings loud and clear. “We meet people where they are. We welcome them as they are. We accept them as they are … in life, in their faith; it doesn’t matter; we welcome them,” Bunke said. “The pandemic really showed us who we were,” he added. “It showed us the church is not the place of worship; the church is the people.”
“We have people who help with our food pantry and others who show up when we ask for support, having already made and bagged, for example, 20 lunches to donate … and some of them aren’t even members of our church,” Bunker said. “We provide a place to work together, serve together and, for some, worship together.” Adapting to changing times, as it has been since its founding in 1848, they started live-streaming their services, and now many people who don’t even live locally tune in and listen weekly.
As the church approaches its 175th anniversary, volunteers have been combing through boxes and bins and drawers full of photographs and memorabilia, organizing them and turning to older members to help identify people in photos. The Laurel Historical Society has been helping out as well.
Betsy Welsh, who sits on the anniversary celebration committee, has been a St. Philip’s member her whole life. Her mother was 12 years old when she joined St. Philip’s, in 1930.
“I was in the choir and youth groups, as a teen, and I volunteer and serve in many ways now,” Welsh said. “My five sons were also active in youth groups, ushering, helping with the annual Thanksgiving dinner and other acts of service. They’re older now and most of them outside of Maryland, but several of my grandchildren have been baptized at St. Philip’s and several have attended the Camp St. Philip’s summer program. It’s quite special to have generations in our family connected to, supported by and serving St. Philip’s.”
The attendee list for the celebratory anniversary dinner is filling up quickly with current and former parishioners, some of who live outside the area, along with priests and other leaders who served the congregation in the past.
To learn more about St. Philip’s history, read A Church and its Village St.Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel Maryland, by Sally Mitchell Bucklee, a parishioner (available on Amazon) or go to stphilipslaurel.org.