St. Luke’s Church was incorporated in the Diocese of Maryland on St. Luke’s Day, October 18, 1847. At the time, members worshiped in a small building located at the corner of Hollins Street and what is now Arlington Street. From its beginning, St. Luke’s benefited from the generosity of two wealthy men who actively participated in chattel slavery, Judge John Glenn and Gen. George H. Steuart. In 1851, Judge Glenn and his wife, Henrietta, members of St. Pauls’ Parish, donated the land upon which the church now sits to the Vestry of St. Luke’s for the purpose of constructing a church building. The Glenn wealth included a slave farm near Catonsville, where he entertained Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. George H. Steuart and his wife, Ann Jane, were founding members of St. Luke’s Church and significant financial contributors, and Gen. Steuart was a vestry member. The Steuart family were slaveholders and strong supporters of slavery. Gen. Steuart personally owned several thousand acres of land and 125 enslaved people of African descent inherited from his uncle. He openly supported the Fugitive Slave Acts, the Dred Scott decision, and the Confederacy, making strenuous efforts to persuade Marylanders to succeed from the Union as civil war approached. As Commander-in-Chief of the Maryland Volunteer Militia, he attempted to use the state militia to prevent the occupation of the State by Union Soldiers, but these efforts failed. In 1861, he fled to Virginia. Too old to actively serve in the Confederate army, he followed the army throughout the war.
From the church’s beginning, persons of African descent appear in the church registry. The first person of African descent to be baptized at St. Luke’s was also the first to be buried from St. Luke’s. Martha Ellen, child of Hezekiah and Hillary Primus, was born on August 26, 1846, and baptized June 26, 1847. She died at the age of ten months and was buried on July 7, 1847, in “Stevenson’s private ground.” It is not known whether Mr. and Mrs. Primus were free or enslaved persons. Some persons of African descent entered in the parish registry are identified as “servants,” while others, like the Primuses, have no designation. In 1855 Anna and Araminta Cleggett, “servants of George Carroll,” were baptized and confirmed, and Mary Gordon, another George Carroll “servant,” was confirmed. There are two explicit indications of enslavement. Eliza Butler was baptized on May 20, 1861. Her parents are not named, nor is her date of birth recorded. Her sponsors are listed as “Mr. and Mrs. Oliver,” and a note states “Dr. Oliver owner.” “Rosetta,” aged thirty-seven and a half years” and “servant of Dr. King,” was buried on October 25, 1860, in the “Gay Street colored burial ground.”
According to the history written in 1947 to commemorate the church’s first one hundred years, in 1855 the fourth Rector of St. Luke’s, the Rev. Charles W. Rankin, began a “mission to the colored people” with the organization of a “servants’ class” for their instruction (the language reflects the culture of the time). This class grew into a Sunday School which, if it was like other Sunday Schools for blacks at the time, included not only religious lessons but basic lessons in reading and writing as well. By 1860, this Sunday School had an enrollment of 120 scholars and met “three times every Lord’s Day.” Parochial reports show a steady increase in the number of persons of African descent being baptized, confirmed, and included among the church’s communicants. The 1864 parochial report indicates 25 “colored” communicants (along with 369 white communicants). However, in that same report the Rev. Rankin laments, “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 three hundred names upon our list; now we can with difficulty count sixty-five. No adults have been baptized, and none confirmed; while in many other ways we are left to mourn over the demoralization which is taking place among the servants.” The following year Rankins wrote, “I regret to report that our work among the colored people has been almost entirely broken up.”
However, the church’s work with persons of African descent continued to be of such importance that in 1867 “the colored Sunday School” was assigned solely to the care of the Rev. William Coale, a Deacon serving at St. Luke’s. “He had at that time ninety scholars in the Sunday Schools, and conducted Services of worship for the colored members of the parish as well.” The Vestry of St. Luke’s contributed financial support by paying off the balance of an indebtedness due of $45.00 “on the melodeon purchased for the Sunday and night schools, by voluntary contributions and largely from the offerings of the colored people” (Vestry minutes of November 19, 1869). The Rev. Rankin reported in 1871, “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.”
How long the ministry with persons of African descent continued is not clear. It appears that over time the church’s interest and energy became focused exclusively upon its several parochial schools and missions located elsewhere in the city. The 1947 history concludes with these words: “Some are of the opinion that because of changed neighborhood conditions which make the operation of the parish difficult, the work of St. Luke’s is done. But not so.”
And, such as been the case. For at least the past twenty years, St. Luke’s Church has reached out to minister to the neighborhood, especially ministry to the neighborhood children. First, a monthly program, “Safe Saturday,” was established. Next an afterschool program was added, and then a summer camp. St. Luke’s mission is to provide a safe place in which children in our neighborhood can play and learn and grow.