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New "Oprah house" has grateful owner

February 13, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Habitat for Humanity handed the keys of a brand-new house to another first-time homeowner Saturday.

It is a scene that has been repeated hundreds of times across the country, but each time brings a new excitement.

"I never thought I was ever going to have my own home," said Mercedes Pantophlet, who had been living in public housing on Sumans Avenue. "This is God's house. He put this here."

God and a lot of hard work from dozens of volunteers and Pantophlet herself. They erected the single-story home over the past year on the corner of Jonathan and North streets in Hagerstown.

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That spot sits in the middle of a high-crime neighborhood that has taken its knocks in recent years.

But Pantophlet, a secretary with Trans Potomac Prevention Coalition, said she is unfazed by the drug activity near her new home.

"Not one tiny bit," she said. "I have nothing to worry about on this corner."

Pantophlet, 46, choked up as about 50 well-wishers applauded during a ceremony in the living room of the house. She received several gifts from the group, including a Bible and a hand-stitched door hanger that said: "Home Sweet Home."

"This is more than a house, it's a home," said the Rev. Allan Greijack, pastor of Gateway Ministries.

Pantophlet's home was one of scores built across the country in the name of TV personality Oprah Winfrey. Washington County was one of the communities that took Winfrey's challenge in 1997 to build a Habitat home.

"Well, Mercedes, you have waited patiently - probably more patiently than many of us. But this is certainly your day," said Lu Marletta, the project manager of the "Oprah house".

Pantophlet, a single mother of three children, was born in Aruba and moved to New York about 18 years ago. She said she moved to Hagerstown seven years ago on the advice of a friend who had moved to town.

Pantophlet said she took great pleasure in the "sweat equity" that all Habitat homeowners must put in as a down payment on their homes.

"It was fun. I learned how to insulate," she said.

Pantophlet described herself as a deeply religious woman who sees divine influences in life - even its misfortunes.

Growing up, Pantophlet said she had a difficult childhood.

As an adult, she said she became dismayed when her first son was born deaf.

But she said she is convinced that even her setbacks have been part of a divine plan that has guided her to this point.

"I've been trying for a while, but you can't hide from God," she said.

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