St. Luke’s Youth Center (SLYC) at Camp Imagination
By Mary Klein, Diocesan Archivist
St. Luke’s Church, Baltimore, whose worship space holds 900 people, has been in the same location on North Carey Street since the cornerstone was laid on November 1, 1851. A few years previously, in 1846, the fledgling congregation had met in a small frame building situated on Hollins and Oregon Streets.
From its inception, St. Luke’s was an outpost of the Anglo-Catholic movement which began in England in the 1830’s. Anglo-Catholic clergy, sometimes called Tractarians or High-churchmen, espoused returning to early Christian practices (such as more frequent celebration of the Eucharist) and promoted the Social Gospel, which sought to apply Christian ethics to such problems as poverty, poor schools, racial inequality, and slums. Many of the early English adherent clergy worked in the slums of London among the illiterate, and used church art such as stained glass, statuary, and paintings as imagery to teach their message.
The Bishop of Maryland, William R. Whittingham (bishop from 1840-1879) was an American leader of the movement, and he became a magnet to other Anglo-Catholics in the nineteenth century, attracting, mentoring and fostering adherents to the movement. Many of these clergy were rejected by other bishops as being “Romish”, but Whittingham welcomed them to his fold. Not only were the clergy a tightly knit group, but their families became friends as well. One such clergyman was the Rev. Rueben Riley, who originally came from New York, and was recruited in 1842 by Whittingham from St. Paul’s College to come to Maryland and teach at Whittingham’s new school – St. James College, near Hagerstown. The network of Anglo-Catholics in the United States was a close one, and Riley had been recommended to Whittingham by William Muhlenberg, considered the “father of church schools” in the United States.
From the early years, St. Luke’s reported statistics showing baptisms, funerals, marriages and confirmations for “colored people”. The first Parochial Report (1848) listed 12 white baptisms, 1 “colored” baptism; 5 white funerals, and 1 “colored” funeral. The Rev. Charles Rankin became rector July 10, 1854, and in the 1855 Parochial Report he detailed 29 white baptisms, and 7 colored; there were 77 white people confirmed, and 10 colored. He also held “servants’ class” for educational purposes. In his 1856 Parochial Report, Rankin told of “valuable assistance from a band of young men and women as the ‘Sunday School Association’, in carrying forward the work of the church among the poor and neglected in the Northern portion of the city.” The 1860 Parochial Report reported “During the past year a colored Sunday School has been organized, and under the faithful care of Mr. James E. Hewes, has been conducted with energy and zeal. It now numbers more than 120 members – has 3 sessions every Sunday, and has already presented candidates for baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion.”
Confirmations of “colored people”, 1855
The Civil War took its toll on St. Luke’s ministry to African-Americans. The Rev. Mr. Rankin’s 1862 Parochial Report stated that, “The colored Sunday School has been somewhat affected by the distractions of the times but is still faithfully carried forward under the direction of Mr. Hewes.” But by 1864 Rankin bemoaned, “It is with sincere sorrow that I put on record the falling off of interest and attendance in our Colored Schools. Before the civil troubles of the country broke out, we had nearly 300 names upon our list; now we can with difficulty count 65.” And in 1865, “I regret to report that our work among the colored people has been almost entirely broken up.”
The Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd came to Baltimore in September 1863, sponsored by St. Luke’s to run two girls’ schools with 120 pupils. They also “rendered efficient service in nursing the sick and in ministries among the poor”, another goal of the Social Gospel.
Although the “work among the colored people” in the neighborhood around St. Luke’s all but disappeared during the Civil War, the 1868 Parochial Report stated, “The Colored Sunday School has been especially committed to the Rev. Alexander Coale, deacon, and under his faithful care has greatly increased; it now numbers 90 members.” By 1871, the Sunday School boasted 406 white scholars, and 70 “colored”, and there were 611 white and 20 colored communicants. “We have fitted up a small Chapel for the use of the colored congregation, where a Sunday School is held on Sunday afternoons, and service on Sunday nights. The work is under the care of the Rev. Mr. Coale and is quite encouraging. It is expected that a confirmation will soon be held in the Chapel.”
In 1874 “The Pratt Street Mission” (on the corner of Pratt and Oregon Streets) was begun by St. Luke’s. In his Parochial Report, the rector provided details: “A Sunday School and sewing school have been in operation during the winter, and large numbers of children have been brought under the influence of the Church. The Sunday night services are well attended: the Mission room being often uncomfortably crowded. This work is in a very destitute neighborhood and aims to supply both its temporal and spiritual wants.”
While the clergy and people of St. Luke’s were committed to reaching out to the poor and underserved populations of Baltimore, it cannot be overlooked that some members of the church were slaveowners and supporters of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In fact, one of the early supporters of St. Luke’s was Gen. George H. Steuart, the enslaver of 125 people working several thousand acres of land owned by Steuart. Therefore, the church directly benefitted from the wealth of Steuart and other slave owners. Situated between the Franklin Square and Poppleton neighborhoods in West Baltimore, the church also benefitted from the wealthy merchants and professionals who began to occupy the new grand homes springing up in the area at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1896, St. Luke’s reported 1,350 baptized persons in its care. As the discriminatory redlining real estate practices flourished in the city, “white flight” began as parishioners moved out of the city into the suburbs. St. Luke’s 1936 Parochial Report listed 470 baptized persons, 278 were enumerated in 1954, and in 1978, 130. By 1994, most members of St Luke’s drove to the church from the suburbs, and the number of baptized persons had dropped to 70.
While many Episcopal churches in Baltimore city fled their old established neighborhoods and relocated to suburban areas, St. Luke’s stayed in West Baltimore, trying to serve their neighbors, who were now overwhelmingly African American, especially focusing on the children. There were summer camps, after-school programs, community gatherings and an annual Thanksgiving dinner. But upkeep of large buildings, dwindling financial resources, and falling membership took their toll, and by the dawn of the twenty-first century St. Luke’s struggles seemed unsurmountable. After several years of part-time clergy support, in 2008, the Very Rev. Van Gardner, who had just retired as Dean of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, began ministering at St. Luke’s. He re-envisioned the church as a “missional congregation” focusing on the young people in the community. Organizing St. Luke’s Youth Center, he wrote, “We are proclaiming the love of God in Jesus by witnessing to the Gospel in a neighborhood that has been abandoned by many churches. We are evangelizing through action and touching the lives of at-risk youth and our many volunteers with the good news of a loving God.”
Following the sad death of Van Gardner in January of 2021, his daughter Amanda Talbot has taken up the mantle of St. Luke’s Youth Center and describes it as “a community of families, neighbors, volunteers and partners working together to provide the youth of West Baltimore with quality resources, experiences and supports – the kind all children need to thrive.” St. Luke’s Youth Center (SLYC) provides daily after-school enrichment, community dinners, summer camp, social-emotional learning and much more. So, although the times and the neighbors have changed since the early days of St. Luke’s 186 years ago, somehow the goal to minister to the neighborhood remains in place. The Bishop’s Annual Ministries Appeal supports SLYC, and volunteers are always welcome so that its ministry to the young people of West Baltimore survives and flourishes.
The Rev. Charles Rankin