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Hobson's Choice

Hobson's Choice. 3145 Florence Road, Woodbine, Howard County, Maryland. c. 1830

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Thomas Hobson was a licensed carrier of passengers, mail, and parcels between Cambridge and London. He kept horses for this purpose and as an enterprising man he rented them to college students when they weren't in use. Students soon found favorite mounts and would ask for them by name. Hobson observed that this resulted in some horses getting too much work, so he devised a way to rotate the mounts. His new rule was that you would get the horse closest to the stable door. If you refused that horse, you would get none at all. This system was soon branded "Hobson's Choice" and to this day means a "choice" that is really no choice at all.

One of the things that most churches struggle with is funding. In our post-pandemic world, some have not survived the downturn in active membership, and many are struggling to maintain buildings and grounds.

There are some churches that are blessed with large endowments, streams of real estate or school tuition income, or a “money from Rome” model. Some denominations take tithing very seriously, but that still relies on a younger generation continuing the tradition.

My dear old friend Jim Coker at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland had repeated his mantra so often that whenever he rose to his feet in a church assembly, the parishioners almost said it with him in unison. “Stewardship, the most important work of the church”. Now Jim knew that living out the teaching of Jesus and spreading the Good News was actually our mission, but he had come to the pragmatic conclusion that if we didn’t survive as a parish, our mission was irrelevant.

Even with those inspiring words, we still had the triad of fundraising challenges: educating young parishioners, maintaining the flow from givers, and getting the elderly to remember us in their prime giving years and estates. That youngest generation had watched Dad drop a dollar in the plate every Sunday and thought that was enough. Well, sometimes Dad was quietly giving more than that through an annual pledge, and if it was 20 years ago, the son needed to put at least $3.00 a week in the plate just to keep up with the spending power of dad’s stingy $1.00. Opening their eyes and establishing their responsibility was step one.

And churches, like many human institutions have to grow to stay viable.

If you are not increasing your membership, you are not standing still, but are shrinking. Each year the grim reaper carries a certain number of members off to meet Jesus, and we miss both their presence and their presents. If we are successful in not just replacing those who change their address, but adding to the net size of our flock, that is accompanied by other attendant challenges: more space and other resources to accommodate more adults in the pews and more kids in Sunday School, a greater pastoral care load on the clergy, and more opinions about direction and priorities. In other words, if your evangelical outreach works, the overhead explodes, and life gets complicated.

Seminary doesn’t prepare clergy to run complex organizations and on-the-job training is stressful and often not successful.

Back in Ellicott City we were very lucky to have a rector with both spiritual gifts and the pragmatism and business sense to run what is called a “corporate-sized” parish. We grew to a size during his tenure that enabled us to have a number of groups under the parish umbrella to feed the interests and needs of a diverse membership. Quilting? Music? Bible Study? Gardening? Small Group Worship? Parenting Education? We had the group for you.

And then there was our mission church which brings me to the purpose of my tale today.

In 1976, the Vestry and people of another Episcopal Parish in our community, St. Peter’s Church, Ellicott City, made a commitment to place a mission church in western Howard County. A mission church is a newly planted parish that relies on the host church until it has sufficient membership and money to become independent. Think of it as a new sapling on the edge of the forest.

Ellicott City had been the sleepy little county seat of Howard County for many years, but when the Rouse Corporation quietly purchased 10 percent of the county land and announced in 1967 the founding of Columbia, MD, neighboring Ellicott City exploded in size and density. Western Howard County like all other parts, was in a transition and was fertile ground to plant a new church. That mission church, named St. Andrew’s. celebrated its first Eucharist on the feast of St. Andrew, November 30, 1980, at Glenwood Middle School. As restoration of the historic old Union Chapel was completed, St. Andrew’s celebrated its first service there on Christmas Eve 1980.

In 1985, my church, St. John’s, Ellicott City, began supporting the efforts of the growing congregation. As they grew in size, they grew in complexity. They had some dedicated members whose quirky personalities added a measure of drama to the formula. The aforementioned Jim Coker and I were vestry liaisons to the mission and had some interesting evenings attending their mission board meetings in Glenwood. There were nights when the annual blessing of the hounds for the Thanksgiving Day Fox Hunt seemed to be their sole priority.

But the Holy Spirit continued to be engaged and they eventually were ready to hop out of the nest and go airborne. They only lacked a multi-year commitment of funds sufficient to hire a permanent rector. They knew who they wanted, it was just a matter of could they afford to give him a contract.

The “who” was Reverend Harry Brunette, a guy with the unique skills to thrive in this difficult environment. Harry had not had an easy life. He grew up in an orphanage in Catonsville, Maryland. An obedient and resourceful young man, he graduated from McDonogh School. He was ordained in 1962 but left the priesthood for 25 years to serve as a community organizer and businessman. He eventually became a part time vicar at St. John’s and through that connection volunteered his services to St. Andrews. The little parish fell in love with Harry and the feeling was mutual.

So how to pay for Harry?

Two of the leaders of the St. Andrew’s congregation were Ted and Mary Louise “Boots” Gramkow.

Edwin “Ted” Warfield Gramkow was a scion of the Warfield’s of Maryland. His grandfather was Edwin Warfield, professor, newspaper publisher, bank president, and 45th Governor of Maryland. Governor Warfield was born at Oakdale, the family plantation in Howard County. He was a third cousin to Wallis Warfield Simpson wife of the abdicated king of the United Kingdom, King Edward VIII.

Ted had a distinguished career in the US Air Force, serving in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. From 1968 to 1969, he directed the Berlin airlift which provided food, fuel, and supplies to the people of West Berlin. Upon returning to the United States, he served as Executive staff assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He retired from the Air Force in 1972 with the rank of Colonel.

In retirement, Ted turned his passion for historic Maryland homes into a business, Gramkow Enterprises, restoring 18th century houses. He restored a number of historic Howard County residences including Waverly Mansion, Dorsey Hall, and Burleigh Manor.

Ted’s beautiful wife, Mary Louise "Boots" Gramkow, joined Ted as a dedicated preservationist in Howard County, Maryland. She served on the board of the Maryland Historic Trust in the 1980's.

As one might expect of a well-bred couple who were historic home enthusiasts, they lived in one. Hobson’s Choice, circa 1830, is significant for its architecture, embodying the distinctive characteristics of second quarter 19th century domestic architecture in rural central Maryland. Located in Woodbine, Maryland, it features beautiful Flemish brick, a simple rectangular configuration with a center hall plan consisting of one room on both sides, a symmetrical facade, and transitional Federal/Greek Revival influenced decorative detailing. A one-story addition to the west-rear brought the 19th century kitchen into the main house.

In short, the home is stunning and sits on beautiful farmland originally patented in land records of the early 18th century.

The home was the scene of the most incredible night of stewardship in my experience. The Gramkows invited the five members of the mission board of St. Andrews and some additional active members of the little congregation to come together in their historic home for an historic meeting. Bill Shiflet, Rector of St. John’s and I were also invited.

As we settled into the gorgeous living room, warmed by a well-laid fire in the brass-screened fireplace, we were served welcoming beverages in crystal vessels by our host and hostess. Bill Shiflet began the proceedings with a summary of the requirements for our parish to petition the Diocese of Maryland to grant St. Andrews independent status and become a full-fledged parish of the Episcopal Church. Some Q&A followed, but in short order the discussion began as to how the mission could ensure enough budget to call Harry Brunette as the Rector of St. Andrews. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I do recall that compared to their plate offerings and pledges, the hill was pretty steep.

After some mutual hand ringing interlaced with endorsements of Harry and what he would mean to the success of St. Andrews, Boots Gramkow exercised her prerogative as hostess of the evening to take the floor. Boots was also a force of nature and not one to hold back.

Tall, strikingly attractive, always well turned out, this woman was comfortable around horses (“Boots”), children, men, and strong women. When she stood up, I recall that she immediately had everyone’s attention in the room. Even her equally attractive husband Ted gave her his immediate silent gaze.

“We all know what the goal is tonight and I don’t think we really need to discuss it anymore. We all want the same thing. We want enough of a budget to hire Harry and become an independent parish. St. John’s has been wonderful, but they are tired of us and we need to spread our wings.”

That generated some smiles and the “St. John’s is tired of us” got a silent Amen from Bill and me.

She went on. “So, here’s what I propose. I have a pack of 3x5 cards and some pencils to hand out. We should all write down what we can pledge over the next five years to support St. Andrews. I will collect the cards and take them to the kitchen while Ted serves some decaf coffee and cookies. I will tally the total. If it is enough to meet our goal, I will announce our success when I return.”

Then came the kicker.

“If it is not enough, I will pass out a second round of cards, and we will pledge again.”

Boots was presenting a Hobson's Choice, in the living room of Hobson's Choice.

St. Andrews was funded for five years on the “first ballot,” St. John’s petitioned the Diocese and St. Andrews became an independent parish in 1997 with Reverend Harry Brunette as their rector. The church eventually built a new Parish House (church) that was dedicated in 2003. This year they are celebrating their 26th year as an independent parish.

Their little parish has baptized many, introduced the Gospel teachings to many more, and ensured a strong base for the Episcopal Church in Western Howard County. As that portion of the kingdom continues its rapid growth, the vision of St. Peters, and the support of St. John’s and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has been validated over and over again.

Ted Gramkow passed away in 2013 at the age of 87 and his beloved wife Boots followed him three years later at the age of 84. I often think of them and that fateful evening at Hobson's Choice, Woodbine, Maryland.

If there is not a plaque for them at St. Andrews, there certainly should be.


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