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Dispute over old country chapel lands in court

June 30, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

THURMONT, Md. - For 25 years no one seemed to want the old country church that stood abandoned in a scenic but isolated valley north of here.

But now, after 28 years of weekly interdenominational services have drawn people from all over the country - their ranks swelling to a few thousand last Christmas season - there's a dispute in court over just who owns this house of God.

"It's unfortunate that it's being litigated. I don't think that the congregation or myself would like to have had it end up this way," said Pastor Jeff Walter, a nondenominational minister who has been conducting services at the chapel at 7 p.m. on Sundays since November 1995.

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"We do not want to be an embarrassment to God," Walter said, referring to the media attention that the dispute has drawn.

The Rev. Kenneth Hamrick, who revived weekly services at the chapel in 1969 when he was the pastor of a nearby United Methodist Church, likens the conflict to the Biblical confrontation between David and Goliath.

On Feb. 27 The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church Inc., filed suit against Eyler's Valley Chapel Inc., a nondenominational religious corporation, for possession and control of the 140-year-old stone church, according to court records.

The United Methodist Church claims in the lawsuit that as the successor to trustees identified in land records it is the owner of the property but that Eyler's Valley Chapel Inc., has rejected "repeated requests to concede exclusive use, possession and control over the property."

The church is asking the court to issue a decree giving it "absolute ownership and the right of disposition of the property" and recovery of all its costs, expenses and attorney fees related to the lawsuit.

Neither a church spokeswoman nor the attorney representing the church could be reached for comment.

In an answer to the lawsuit filed in Frederick County Circuit Court, Eyler's Valley Chapel Inc. claims it is the rightful owner of the property.

The corporation maintains in a counter complaint that the property "lay abandoned" between 1944 and 1969 but since then the chapel "has been used exclusively ... for the purpose of conducting nondenominational religious services" by Eyler's Valley Chapel Inc. and its predecessors.

The property was conveyed to trustees of Eyler's Valley Chapel for the benefit of the United Brethren Church, the counter complaint states.

The United Methodist Church first tried to take control of the chapel in the fall of 1996, according to the counter complaint.

A trial date for the case has been set for March 25 and 26, 1998.

James M. Glass, president of the Eyler's Valley Chapel board of directors, said in a prepared statement that board members "were dismayed and shocked to learn of the attempt to seize control of this tiny interdenominational church by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church."

Glass called the United Methodist Church's ownership allegations "groundless" and said "we intend to actively pursue a quick and amicable resolution."

Since 1969 "we have restored and maintained the chapel, enlarged the church grounds and cemetery and added a new pavilion and parking lot," Glass said.

Nine people of all different denominations serve on the Eyler's Valley Chapel board of directors, said Glass, who is a member of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church in Rocky Ridge, Md.

Eyler's Chapel, which can comfortably seat up to 120 people, has no membership of its own but each week draws between 80 and 90 people from all different churches, Glass said. A picnic is held on the first Sunday of each month between May and November.

The 16 services held at the chapel over the 10 nights before last Christmas drew more than 2,000 visitors, Glass said.

The quaint chapel, which is lit by 78 candles and served by two outhouses, has a history of struggle since it opened in 1857 under the United Brethren Church, according to Glass.

It closed in the early 1920s when membership dwindled, reopened in 1928 and closed again in November, 1944, remaining "empty and unused since World War II except for an annual homecoming reunion picnic on the grounds," Glass said.

The homecoming picnic in August 1969 turned out to be a fateful one.

Hamrick was visiting an elderly congregant just two weeks after he began his pastorate at the Thurmont United Methodist Church when he first heard about the abandoned chapel in a peaceful valley, he said.

So he went to the homecoming picnic that year and told the crowd of about 70 people that if at least two of them returned at 2:30 p.m. the following Sunday he would volunteer to resume services at the chapel, Hamrick recalled.

Nineteen people turned out the next week and an average of 12 to 15 people on the following Sundays, he said.

In March of 1971, when services were moved to Sunday evenings, attendance jumped to about 30 people, Hamrick said.

By October 1995, an average of 85 people were visiting the chapel each Sunday, he said.

In December 1995, the United Methodist Conference revoked Hamrick's ministerial credentials, citing sexual misconduct, he said.

Hamrick stopped conducting the services at Eyler's Valley Chapel that year and now serves as pastor of the Redeeming Love Christian Fellowship, which meets at Hood College in Frederick on Saturday nights, he said.

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