Daugherty recalls Ascension, Lexington Park’s roots

The Rev. Chuck Daugherty was on hand to celebrate Ascension, Lexington Park's 50th anniversary on Oct. 16-17, 2004.

The Rev. Chuck Daugherty was on hand to celebrate Ascension, Lexington Park’s 50th anniversary on Oct. 16-17, 2004.

[Washington Window] On June 15, 1952, Chuck Daugherty was ordained at Washington National Cathedral.

The following day – a Sunday – he arrived in Lexington Park to take his first service in the trailer park office where the community’s fledgling Episcopal congregation convened.

More than half a century later, he’s still in Southern Maryland.

“I just simply never dreamed that I would spend the rest of my life here – but I did,” he said, ensconced in an armchair in the house by Cuckold Creek where he and his wife, Jessie, now live with their daughter’s family and Tucker, the King Charles spaniel.

Just shy of his 84th birthday, Daugherty, retired since 1986, is still a beloved presence at Ascension, the church that was born in the trailer park. And on Oct. 17 he will preach at its 50th anniversary celebration – wouldn’t miss it for the world.

That first Sunday when, fresh out of seminary, Daugherty delivered his carefully-prepared sermon at the trailer park, the congregation’s future seemed shaky, at best.

“On the first Sunday I was there, there were 10 people,” he said. “And I made such an impression on them that the following Sunday there were six. And that was the lowest we ever got.”

During his final year at seminary, Daugherty was called to Lexington Park by Bishop Angus Dun to continue the mission work the diocese had begun there in 1949.

There was no Episcopal church in Lexington Park, but at the bishop’s request, a priest in nearby Leonardtown had conducted a survey to see if there was any interest in starting one. One hundred people responded positively, and Daugherty was given a list of their names. But by the time he knocked on their doors to introduce himself, there were only 14 of them left: the rest had been called away by the Navy.

While the Navy drew people away, it also delivered a constant wave of new faces to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park. So Daugherty set to work to build a solid congregation on Southern Maryland’s constantly shifting sands.

“Lexington Park is always changing,” he said. “In 1955 one of the biggest squadrons on base moved and about half the congregation moved with it. We lost the organist and the choirmaster and half the vestry. I spent the whole durn summer looking for Sunday School teachers, and finally I found enough, but it was a highly transient community.”

As a child, Daugherty had attended another new congregation: St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C. The church was built in 1928 and at the time was the newest in the diocese. His mother played the organ, and he sang in the boy’s choir – until the Sunday after Easter, 1935, when his voice broke in the middle of Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus.

“That was the last Sunday I sang, ha ha ha,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”

His singing career was temporarily halted – he now sings in a barbershop quartet – but his churchgoing habits were firmly established. So years later, when he heard a guest preacher at Epiphany, D.C., speak of a shortage of priests, it started him thinking. With the backing of St. Stephen’s vestry, he entered the Episcopal Theological Seminary.

A year after St. Stephen’s was erected, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression followed, and then World War II. Money was tight, and the diocese stopped building churches. But during the boom at the start of the 1950s, it decided it was time to begin building again. A ‘Builders for Christ’ program was established to raise money to construct new churches. And the first of these was Ascension, Lexington Park.

“They used the first $40,000 to build Ascension,” Daugherty said. “That’s what Ascension cost: $40,000.”

“You can’t even put up a tool shed for that now,” Jessie said, coming in from the kitchen where she has been cracking crabs with Tucker in tow.

The church was paid for by the diocese – the first service was Sept. 19, 1954 – but the land was donated by Herman Hewitt, an elderly parishioner.

“He’d grown up very poor and during the Depression they had a very hard time,” Daugherty said. “He and his son bought land for the timber on it, cut down the timber and then sold the land. Did very well. And when he heard they were going to build a church, he and his son… he said, ‘Mr. Daugherty, I owed somebody something.’ We could never have bought land like that – even then.

“The land was covered with scrub pines and other nondescript growth, and we had a lot of clearing sessions,” he said. “Now there are great big trees, all of them planted by Joe Gough.” Gough still tends the churchyard, which has earned Ascension the moniker: “The church with the beautiful garden.”

Like Joe Gough’s trees, once Ascension had been planted, it grew quite naturally.

“Your fame spread,” Jessie jokes, easing slowly into a chair. She is scheduled to have back surgery later this month. “I think one reason the church grew as it did was because of the Navy families.”

The Navy families came to the church in search of Sunday School and youth groups for their children, as well as sense of community. Most of them were young, and for many, it was their first assignment away from home.

“When I got there I was 31 years old and I was older than most of the people in my congregation,” Daugherty said. “There were children all over the place – there were a lot of children.”

On Sundays, the church’s undercroft was overflowing with them.

“We had as many as 90 children down there,” Daugherty said. “We partitioned it off as best we could with curtains, but it was bedlam down there, and the sound going up through the heating ducts. But nobody really cared.”

It wasn’t just the children who liked to have a rowdy good time: Weary of fundraisers, Jessie decided the church should do something “just for fun,” and a succession of memorable evenings ensued.

There was a Roman toga party and a night with an “Around the World in 80 Days” theme.

“The Wild, Wild West was one of the most well received,” Daugherty remembers. “Everybody dressed in cowboy clothes and we had a chuck wagon.”

And no one will ever forget “John Watts and his All Girl Orchestra” the two agree, still chuckling after all these years: The Navy boys dressed as women and played washboards and bottles and such, while Jessie headed up the rat tail comb section. And old Clint Harder, then in his 80s, was unrecognizable as a man, but for his skinny, knobby knees.

“The whole community came,” Jessie said. “They really enjoyed those shows.”

They also enjoyed Daugherty’s sermons, which he never wrote down again after the first one which he had prepared so conscientiously for the trailer park congregation.

“Well, it took too long,” he laughed. “It would have taken me all week.”

A natural raconteur, this method has served Daugherty well – most of the time.

“You can get into trouble doing that,” he said. “Because on one or two very memorable occasions, I forgot how the sermon ended.”

But when the story’s a good one, an end isn’t always necessary. And Daugherty, for one, is glad that the story of Ascension, Lexington Park, isn’t over yet.

Postscript: The Rev. Charles “Chuck” Daugherty died peacefully in his sleep on Nov. 2, 2012. He was 92.

First appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 73, No. 10, October 2004 as

Ascension prepares to celebrate 50 years

Former rector Chuck Daugherty looks back on the Lexington Park congregation’s early days’