Early History

Early History of Collington

Life expectancy at the dawn of the 20th Century stood at 48 years.
As the 21st Century slipped into place it had risen to over 80.
 Consolidated from Dr. Sally M. Bucklee’s

History of Collington (2005)

– Edited by Curt Bury –

To call Collington Episcopal Life Care Community a miracle may seem an over-statement — until you understand the commitment of a disparate set of men and women who walked hand-in-hand with a beloved bishop to create a very special place for older adults of all faiths.

A successful mission required finding the right people at the right moment.  It meant building up a diverse army of volunteers with specific skills in engineering, insurance, marketing or knowledge of health care regulations and building codes.  Folks who would dedicate themselves to building a new unknown: a life care community to serve the needs of older adults as they move into a new phase in life — their bonus years — a time previous generations simply did not have.

Women and men, laity and clergy together developed a unique Statement of Philosophy that would guide their work and commitment for years to come. Over and over, they walked the promised land — 128 acres of field, water, forest — minutes from the Beltway.  It would become not only a country-like home to older adults, but an urban wildlife preserve as well.

The chronology of Collington stretches back to 1924 and Georgetown where, for nearly 70 years, the Episcopal Church Home (ECH) served the elderly as a private, non-profit corporation.  For 64 years between the opening of the ECH and the first residents moving into Collington, many, many volunteers throughout the Diocese of Washington pioneered and maintained facilities and programs for an ever-increasing population of older adults.

By the mid-1960’s, the ECH Board of Governors realized problems were surfacing simply because people were living so much longer than previous generations.  What would be satisfactory, livable environments — including physical, organizational and social aspects — for older Americans?  A Diocesan staff person came on board to research and develop long range plans for an appropriate continuum of care.

The Diocese learned through a questionnaire it distributed to Episcopalians age 60 and over that:

  • The clear preference of most respondents was to remain at home as long as possible and receive services at home.
  • Individuals seeking residential options were overwhelmingly interested in facilities that would offer independent living and
    continuing care, i.e. both assisted living and nursing care at the same facility, like Collington does today.

How It All Began

William Seton Belt, Jr (1871-1959) left a will in 1944 directing that the main dwelling of his family’s “home farm, (on Church Road, Rte. 214) …be preserved and made available to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington … as a home of aged and retired ministers … or for such other charitable purposes of a similar nature …”.   Married, eccentric, reclusive, Belt was also shrewd.  In addition to his family’s long-held land, he bought up property all over Prince George’s County well before the county began to develop.

Along with Belt, Oden Bowie was also important to the development and acceptance of Collington and served on its original Board.  The Bowie family’s 19th C. home still lies between Rte. 450 and Church Road, which connects the Belt and Bowie properties and churches.  Both families were among the earliest settlers in the region.

Adventuring into the Unknown

In 1969, the Bishop of Washington, William F. Creighton, appointed a highly qualified task force to recommend how to best use Belt’s home farm.  The Bishop expressed hope that the Diocese could “find a way to create a community that will really respond to human needs in our time in history, the kind of community that will make other people want to live in it, and set a pattern that may be copied, not only in our own Metropolitan Area, but in other parts of the country.”

“anachronistic and sociologically unsound.”

 In its 1971 report, the Seton Belt Advisory Committee recommended developing a whole new village that would be the first of its kind — “a planned community for all ages, races, economic groups and religions.”  Except for ‘all ages’ these same ideals are reflected in Collington’s Statement of Philosophy 40 years later.

When initial planning began, however, environmentalists expressed great concern over the loss of a rare patch of virgin forest, others suggested that such a development would be “anachronistic and sociologically unsound.”  Together with objections by the Prince George’s County Council that the planned community might bring in low income persons requiring government assistance, the results were that the zoning exception was denied by the County Council in September 1975.  The opportunity was gone, and with it about one million dollars.

The dream persists

John Thomas Walker had served as Canon Missioner of Washington National Cathedral from 1966 until he was elected assistant bishop and then diocesan bishop in 1977.  Walker was only the second Black American in the Episcopal Church
to lead a diocese.

In 1979 the Reverend John Evans — today a Collington resident — became the Bishop’s Assistant for Ministry on Aging.  Evans was charged to evaluate senior citizen programs connected to the Diocese, as federal regulations were tightening and there was an increasing demand for more services at senior centers.

Then, in 1981, it was learned that a property, five minutes from the Beltway on Lottsford Road in Prince George’s County, was about to become available to a religious body interested in developing a life care community. Paul Zanecki, a developmental lawyer, had a client who was interested in seeing such a community constructed.  Zanecki talked with the Reverend Larry Harris, rector of St. Barnabas, Leland, where Zanecki’s daughter went to school.  Harris met with John Evans and presented the concept.  Evans became excited.

Zanecki’s client turned out to be one of the wealthiest men in the Washington – ­Baltimore area
— Homer Gudelsky (1911-1989), who probably built half the roads in Maryland, Tyson’s Corner Mall and much more.  Gudelsky’s father was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who made a fortune as a junk dealer in Baltimore.  The Gudelskys believed in giving back.  Gudelsky had quickly recognized that the life care concept represented the future for active, older adults and it seemed to work best with a religious group operating it for the benefit of the residents rather than for profit.

In June 1981, Diocesan Council authorized a study concerning potential development of the Lottsford Road property by the Diocese and the Gudelsky-owned Lottsford Company.  Gudelsky had a dream — at age 75 — of creating a new and special kind of community, which he intuitively recognized as a burgeoning need in American society.

It’s up to YOU

When it became clear the project was feasible, Bishop Walker called a meeting of clergy serving Episcopal congregations close to the Lottsford Road property.  A brilliant and sensitive strategist,
Walker knew this to be a worthy undertaking but that it needed to rise up within Prince George’s County — not from outsiders. Local residents had to provide the direction, people-power and political drive required to bring this elusive dream to fruition.  Six local congregations became involved, plus Washington National Cathedral. The Board of Directors would later include three Collington residents — a unique feature.

Walker’s intent was to organize an entity that would create a community on the model developed by the Council’s study.  It would be a partnership with the Diocese, which would provide all necessary support IF the parishes decided to undertake the project. If they decided not to, that was the end of the dream.

Each nearby congregation appointed four people to serve on a steering committee.  The Bishop appointed others to represent the interests of the Diocese and who fit the list of skills needed for the task: administrators, financial officers, attorneys, insurance brokers, health care professionals, engineers, marketers, builders, architects, government regulators.

Soon the new group was bouncing about with the Bishop on a Queen Anne school bus to look at life care communities.  They hammered out the  Philosophy Statement which would become the very essence of Collington’s sales campaign, approach to development and the base on which to bond a diverse community.

The most impressive of the communities explored was the Friends’ Broadmead in Baltimore, where Martin Trueblood was director.  Son of Elton Trueblood, a well-known Quaker theologian and writer, Martin was persuasive about the wave
of the future as people reach “the age of anxiety” and need back-up care if they are to continue to enjoy active lives.  Broadmead would become the model for the new development and Trueblood its consultant.  The committee selected as architects the firm that had designed Broadmead, and voted on “Collington” as the name.

Thus began a unique, “made-in-America” alliance: an African American Episcopal bishop, a Jewish millionaire of Polish extraction and Quakers!

Going to work

Committee members soon began to visit
congregations to build awareness of the continuing care concept and Collington.  Harry Smith, an attorney and engineer, helped the project qualify as a tax-free, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization; filed the proper forms with the proper government agencies at the proper time and drew up incorporation papers.  He convinced firms or individuals, whose skills were essential, to work “at risk,” i.e., wait for payment until and if the project succeeded and money became available. All this required trust on a major scale.

Former leaders remember warmly the weekly (and often more frequent) meetings, held wherever they could find free space: schools, churches, offices.  “We were like a floating crap game,” Jim Gholson recalled with a chuckle.  God’s hand seemed clearly to be working in and through the whole endeavor.
It was a remarkable combination of miracle, mission, ministry and a strong sense of call.  Along the way they pitched tents by busy roads to raise money by selling rummage from their own homes.
Many women even slept outdoors to protect the place.  And over and over, they went to walk the promised land.

Heart’s Delight

The Lottsford Road property had been part of a 360 acre farm, named Heart’s Delight.  Gudelsky had obtained it 25 years earlier for its sand and gravel.  It was one of many he purchased convenient to the proposed Beltway.  But little was extracted from Heart’s Delight.  While the land was not highly valued, it was naturally beautiful with streams, timber and even the graves of its 18th century owner, the Warings.
To avoid the possibility of Collington becoming an enclave of wealthy people, the key to being able to live in this community would be owning a home — and in the Maryland suburbs, about two-thirds of heads of households in the 70-75 year bracket were homeowners.  The sale of one’s home would provide the “down payment” on a cottage or apartment in Collington.

In addition, the Diocese endowed a Fellowship Fund from Seton Belt Trust earnings.  This would reduce or defray founders’ fees and monthly charges for eligible residents unable to afford the full rate or to support a resident whose resources ran out.  The Statement of Philosophy — which covered race, faith and income — would guide the community into the future and be the core of Collington’s values and marketing efforts. Hearings for zoning changes, certification for nursing home beds and other aspects of bringing the dream to fruition loomed large, but this time around the diocese had an army of local advocates who knew somebody who could show them how to jump the hurdles.  

Step by step the way opened to establish “a special community for people of all faiths who could live together and grow together and discover that the latter part of life was as exciting as the middle, as John Evans put it in a 1993 address to residents.

’86: ” … Old Seton would have liked this place”

 The groundbreaking finally occurred in mid-April 1986.  The Reverend Tom Andrews, president of the Board of Directors, was on hand along with the Honorable Parris Glendening, Prince George’s County Executive and Bishop Walker who had provided the spiritual, political and economic know-how to get the job done well, really well.

’87: Laying the cornerstone

Bishop Walker, at the laying of Collington’s cornerstone in October 1987, addressed the people of a hundred years in the future, 2087: “You have solved the problem of old age.  We are just coming to grips with the gerontological revolution” which he noted may prove most revolutionary happening in a century of rapid change …  our greatest problem is society’s unwillingness to assign worth older persons and to allow older persons to live independent lives.”
The bishop concluded by referring back to his opening statement to the people of 2087: “I trust that when you look back on us from
hundred years, you will see that we did our work well.”

It would not take a century.  Collington would soon be acclaimed as a model for life care communities everywhere.

’88: Collington Opens — the Dream Comes True

At the dedication in October 1988, Bishop Walker observed that “Bishop Creighton’s vision permitted the creation of a continuing care community and it is therefore, fitting that the community building of Collington will be known from now on as Creighton Hall.”  The highly respected bishop was dead but there were 143 residents living out his dream in 101 units: 95 women, 48 men, 8 dogs and 6 cats.  The average age of the humans was 76.  Some years later, the new interfaith chapel was named after Bishop Walker.

The intention is to keep the country-like campus and its three story buildings at their current size so that Collington never takes on the feeling of an institution or urban city of high-rises.  Its 128 acres of field, water and forest have been formally designated an urban wildlife preserve.

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