Church ponders move

Crime, limited parking said to be factors in decision

Crime, limited parking said to be factors in decision

June 06, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

Members of the 127-year-old Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown may decide to vacate their stately West Washington Street stone building due in large part to crime in the area, the church's pastor said Thursday.

The church's 300-member congregation will vote Saturday on whether to move to the outskirts of town from a location on the corner of West Washington and South Prospect streets or whether the church should set up a ministry at its current location to help residents and frequenters of the downtown community surrounding the church, the Rev. John Ailstock said.

Ailstock said "a large part (of the debate) is the decline of the downtown area," but added that the church's limited parking and the upkeep of the large facility also will factor into the congregation's decision.


Ailstock confirmed information from a congregation member that an anonymous foundation has offered to donate $400,000 to the church if it decides to move and build a new building. He said the congregation would have to match that donation over several years.

The offer was made last year, he said.

"How people will weigh (the offer) in, I don't know," Ailstock said.

Ailstock said the increase in crime, prostitution and drug dealings near the church has made it hard to attract new members, noting that the membership has dropped by 60 percent since 1950.

Judy Potter, 54, a parishioner of St. John's Episcopal Church, which is about a block south of Hagerstown Presbyterian Church, said, "Our congregation has decreased also, but it's not because of what's going on in the neighborhood."

Hagerstown Presbyterian Church parishioner Marjorie Long, 56, said she's been a member of the church all her life, and doesn't want the church to move.

She said the congregation is split down the middle on the issue.

"Many families are upset at the prospect of losing their church home," she said.

Col. Henry L. Miller, 90, whose great grandfather Joseph Loose donated the land on which the church is built, is one of those members.

"I'm definitely against it," he said. "It's my background."

Miller said he's "not particularly" bothered by the crime downtown.

Ailstock said members of the church are frequently solicited by prostitutes. He said one member thought she saw three drug deals occur in the time it took her to wait for the church to open. Another member watched as someone who appeared to be a prostitute approached a slowing car, he said.

Hagerstown City Police Chief Arthur Smith said, "It's hard to imagine that the parishioners would move the church after seeing some prostitutes from time to time."

Smith said his department has made many prostitution arrests over the years in the area of the Holiday Motel, which is across the street from Hagerstown Presbyterian Church. He said although the Holiday Motel is often frequented by prostitutes, it is not the only spot where prostitutes conduct business.

He said officers conduct prostitution stings and arrest prostitutes from time to time, but the enforcement only forces prostitutes to move to another location.

Bob Patel, manager of the Holiday Motel, said the motel has no prostitution problems. "I don't see anything wrong," Patel said.

St. Mary's Catholic Church Pastor George A. Limmer said he has not noticed any increased crime in the area of his church, but said that the congregation is aware of the prostitutes who loiter near the church. The church recently added $2 million worth of classrooms and church offices to its building, enrollment is going up at the school and people continue to travel from other parts of town to St. Mary's, he said.

"The alley behind the school is a pick-up and drop-off site for prostitutes at night, but when you call the police they take care of it," he said.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said he sees less crime in the area than he has seen in years, but said that he doesn't want to see the church move from its historic location.

"I'm open to any solution," he said. "We value the church and that congregation."

Members of the Historic Heights Community Action Group, which pulls residents from South Prospect Street, Summit Avenue, South Walnut Street and Key Street, also offered its help to the congregation.

Mason Hendrickson, 81, treasurer of the group, said that he wishes the Presbyterian Church would confront the prostitutes who are causing them discomfort.

"They can be confronted in a civilized way," he said.

Ailstock said if the church would develop a downtown ministry group it would require a considerable retooling of the congregation.

"The biggest issue for me is how can we better give glory to God, in a suburban context or in an urban area?" Ailstock said.

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