It might be a bizarre location for a church, capping O’Donnell Square, one of the city’s most sought-after bar scenes, but the Messiah Lutheran Church hopes to embrace both its relatively new neighbors and those transient revelers who might enjoy a reflective moment amid all that partying.
“We’ve been doing stuff for 120 years, and nobody knows we’re alive,” mused Reverend Lee Hudson, 67, who has been pastor of Messiah Lutheran since 1985. “We want to state to the neighbors that we’re still here, and that we’re a worshipping community that’s very welcoming.”
Indeed, Hudson, a thin, easygoing man, speaks of the “glitzy” and “trendy” O’Donnell Square matter-of-factly, without any ill will. He describes his church—with about 40 registered families and individuals—as a “tiny, cash-strapped place,” but it is a place willing to put itself out there and offer whatever level of interaction the surrounding community desires.
The church wants a facelift that, it hopes, will promote more interaction with the denizens of the square.
To that end, Messiah Lutheran Church has enlisted the help of the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit, Baltimore-based architectural organization that provides preliminary design services pro bono.
“We come in for community groups and nonprofits without funds who are looking to pursue grants or fundraising,” said NDC’s Laura Bowe, who is coordinating the project with Messiah Lutheran.
Hudson noted that pursuing a fundraising without at least a schematic plan is a “catch 22”—without a schematic plan, it’s hard to convince anyone to contribute to a project, but without funds, it’s hard to get a schematic plan.
NDC created a schematic plan for the church, at a very, very low cost.
“Our real strength is the network of professional volunteers that work for us to provide services to other nonprofits and community organizations,” said Bowe.
“They’ve been very generous and accessible,” Hudson commented.
One of the main strategies of the design—created by volunteer architects Wendy McGee-Preti, Frank Hong and Andy Niazy—is to “provide a solution that interacts with the community rather than recedes into the background.”
Through the use of lighting, both at the street level and above to highlight the church’s intricate stained glass, the plan seeks to improve Messiah Lutheran’s “sidewalk impact.”
Additionally, the congregation hopes to incorporate some plantings and some more eye-catching, informational signage about the church and its programs.
Perhaps most dramatic, Hudson said that some sort of interactive feature—benches, bike racks, a prayer garden—is planned.
“We’re trying to reconnect with a neighborhood that constantly turns over,” said Hudson. “It’ll take more than a facelift to accomplish that, but a facelift will let people know that something is going on here.”
A prayer garden could be useful in that it would “cause people to interact with what goes on inside the building, without actually being on the inside,” he explained.
Funding for the facelift—the church has $10,000 to spend, according to Hudson—comes from part of a bequest left by Anna Bowler. A Jondo by birth, Bowler was part of a historic Baltimore family that worked in the plumbing business, Hudson said.
Messiah Lutheran Church has remained closely engaged with the surrounding community over the years. In the late 1980s, the church enlisted NDC to help with a project to build senior housing behind the church, in a joint venture between Messiah Lutheran and Jubilee Baltimore. The 17 units are still there and occupied.
The church also had a pivotal role in the square’s first business association, Hudson said.
by Erik Zygmont