community presence

St. Paul's United Methodist Church has been serving the people of Montgomery County Maryland and the Kensington community since 1885. Well known for our warmth and rich fellowship, St. Paul's provides a nurturing environment for spiritual fulfillment as we minister to our community in Christ’s name. We add our own few lines to the long and faithful narrative of the Methodists in Kensington whenever we leave this place and go out into a hurting world to serve in Christ’s name. 

Our story is covered in-depth in the award-winning book The Spirit of Methodism in Kensington, available in the church library, or contact the office to purchase a copy ($10 each). You can enjoy some of the highlights in the narrative below.

A Brief History: Place & People


Nestled in the heart of Kensington, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has often been a meeting place for friends and neighbors. People come to St. Paul’s at all times, from all places. People arrive here hungry to connect with God and with one another. Our history reminds us where we’ve come from, and where we still can go.

In the 19th century, Kensington MD was known as the town of Knowles. Methodists in the area lacked a dedicated worship building and held services on the lawns of their homes. Mr. William H. Wheatley, who had been active in the Methodist Protestant Church in Georgetown, moved to the area in 1884 and offered the use of his large barn for worship. Mr. Wheatley would continue to provide his home for Sunday School classes until 1900.

Founded in 1885

The first purpose-built sanctuary for St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church was erected on the southeast corner of St. Paul Street and Bladensburg Road (now Plyers Mill Road) in 1885, with a formal dedication service held May 30, 1886. The growing congregation soon needed a larger building, however. Dr. R. B. Detrick donated land for a new sanctuary and a parsonage at the northwest corner of what are now Fawcett & Mitchell Streets, near where the church sits today. That church building was dedicated in 1897.

When an emergency arose in Kensington, hand-drawn vehicles from the volunteer fire department responded to the emergency ringing of St. Paul’s bell. Like Kensington’s unpaved streets, St. Paul’s church changed slowly but surely. Rev. Walter McKenney, pastor 1910-1912, wrote, “My slogan was ‘They do who believe they can.’” It took Rev. McKenney some time to convince the 17 church Board members to replace the brass oil lamps with electrical wiring and lights, but he succeeded.

Regular prayer groups became a fixture in the early 20th century. A tragic train accident in present-day Hyattsville in 1906, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the dark days of World War I led to the formation of prayer groups and outreach efforts. The church persevered during the first World War, despite experiencing Sundays with no heat and canceling church dinners due to strict rationing. The women’s missionary society at St. Paul’s joined with the women of Warner Presbyterian Church to roll bandages for the war effort and sew linens for Sibley Hospital.

The 1920s-50s

In the 1920s, St. Paul’s Sunday School regularly teamed up with other Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians for outings, including a memorable 161-person boating trip down the Potomac River. A new minister with a new baby arrived in 1938, with many fresh new ideas for engaging the rapidly expanding community.

World War II, as expected, prompted a surge in service. The Women’s Society of Christian Service, already active in supporting the Hayes Nursing School and the Child Care Board orphanage, volunteered as USO hostesses and took first-aid certification classes in order to be prepared as community care-givers. 

By the late 1940s, members of the vibrant youth program were putting on dramas and holding fundraisers to cover the cost of attending the Methodist Youth Retreat Camp. As today, the youth group balanced mission and fun. They regularly went bowling and collected clothing and canned goods for Overseas Relief. Rev. Edward Harry Porter even played on the basketball team with the youth! A drama group began offering musicals and comedies. 

With all this activity, a new structure was needed. A larger sanctuary, social hall, office space, and classrooms were built in 1953 and replaced the previous building.

Rising from the Ashes in the 1960s

Just 13 years later, on May 3, 1966, the east end of the sanctuary was destroyed by an arsonist’s fire. This set in motion plans for a new building phase. Under the guidance of Rev. Charles F. Kirkley and the building committee, the damaged sanctuary was converted into our current fellowship hall. The fourth (and current) sanctuary space was consecrated November 10, 1968, just after our denomination took the name The United Methodist Church.

Growing in the 1970s and 1980s

The church continued its growth and outreach through the 1970s and 1980s. Rev. Kirkley felt citizen awareness of political issues was vitally important and offered the fellowship hall for community meetings and candidate debates. 

Children from St. Paul's and inner city schools met together in Rock Creek Park for summer camp experiences and Youth boarded buses to go work at homebuilding sites in rural Appalachia. 

A handbells group formed, gleefully calling themselves “The Ding-a-lings” - although the name has changed, the bells they purchased are the same ones used by the Joyful Ringers today. 

Concern about a lack of opportunities for older adults to engage in fellowship led to the formation of the Friendship Club, which offered food and entertainment for seniors until 2020. 

St. Paul’s welcomed its first woman pastor in the 1980s and first Black pastor in the 1990s. 

Work and Worship Today

Many of the Bible study, outreach, and fellowship programs the church now enjoys were started (or re-started) in the 1990s and early 2000s. Volunteer In Mission teams built schools in Nicaragua. The Backpack Build provides over 100 backpacks and school supplies each year. The Justice and Compassion team imagined a variety of short-term opportunities to benefit the region. We have collected coats for refugees coming to the US for the first time, and collected prom dresses for the county's affordable prom clothes closet, cleaned trash out of parks and along riverbanks, and marched in rallies and parades for equality. In 2019, after an extended period of discernment and community meetings, St. Paul's membership voted overwhelmingly to become a Reconciling congregation actively supporting full LGBTQ+ inclusion in the UMC.

In recent years, the church structure has benefited from numerous improvement projects, including renovations. In 2006 we added the impressive Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Sanctuary, an elevator, chair lift, and updated chancel area. In 2021, we renovated the Narthex and Octagon kitchenette, added new accessible bathrooms, created a more accessible main entrance and parking lot with much needed storm-water management, updated fire and water systems, and improved existing office spaces.

Like most faith organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic challenged us to find new ways to worship and maintain connections during a global health crisis and periods of social isolation. Although we temporarily closed our doors physically in March of 2020, we never stopped engaging with the community and each other. We posted devotionals on Facebook, updated our email and print newsletters, and learned to Zoom. We held outdoor worship services in the park. We mailed grocery store cards to the families we used to see at our monthly food pantry program. We applied for grant funding to keep our ministries going. As people began to feel comfortable gathering again, we began livestreaming worship from the Sanctuary for the first time. The Covid-19 pandemic presented changes, disruptions, challenges, the closing of some groups, and eventually new opportunities for re-imagined ministries and spiritual growth. As of 2024, we are feeling more secure in our "new normal," while gratefully acknowledging our rich past.

St. Paul’s has never been content to stay within our walls. A church newsletter from Rev. William McKenney in 1921 argued, “No day is without opportunities for doing good. Let us shoulder under someone’s burdens and thereby lighten our own. Let us make the Golden Rule not the rule of gold but the rule of life. Let us make our church a power in the community!” As we gather for worship, sing hymns of praise, put school supplies into the hands of children, and put food into the hands of hungry neighbors, we know we are carrying out this mission today.