ST. MARY’S CITY, Md. – In a vacant field the sun peeks through the wooden door frame marking where the first Catholic church in America once stood. The walls will soon be raised, too, one hand-made brick at a time, if a fund-raising campaign to re- create this piece of colonial Maryland is successful.
The chapel will sit across an archeological park from the already reconstructed State House. In the spirit of separation of church and state, the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation and Friends is seeking mostly private donations to construct the religious building.
For 70 years, from its founding in 1634 to 1704, St. Mary’s was a haven of religious freedom for the 50 or so Catholics living in this agricultural city, then Maryland’s capital. The cross-shaped foundation of the destroyed church reveals the walls were three bricks thick and probably reached more than two stories high – a testament to the firm foot Catholics put in this new land, said Tim Reardon, chief archaeologist for the foundation.
“While standing in this foundation, the church seems small, but if you can imagine the walls 23 feet high, [and] an arched ceiling and spires reaching to the heavens, it must have been a very impressive building in this 200-person town,” Reardon said.
The cost of rebuilding is estimated at $5.3 million. Work on the chapel won’t start for another year, until the foundation has raised the needed funds. The project will probably take two years to complete, said foundation president Jeanne Chandler.
The reconstruction will be on-site so the public can watch as the brick specialist mixes clay and water in a pit, shapes the bricks, dries them in the sun, fires them, and lays them one-by- one to build the exterior wall. The second two layers will be built by speedier modern methods, Reardon said.
Three coffins believed to hold colonial Royal Governor Philip Calvert, his wife and their infant daughter were unearthed in the right arm of the chapel area in 1990. Philip Calvert was the uncle of the second Lord Baltimore, who chartered the Maryland colony but never visited it.
When the chapel is rebuilt, the coffins will be replaced with plexiglass above them, so visitors can view them.
The foundation also plans to rebuild the nearby house where the priest probably lived as a museum to explain the chapel’s significance and the process of excavation and rebuilding.
Already, about 41,000 visitors tour historic St. Mary’s City each year to see the reconstructed town center, State House, tobacco plantation and recreated Maryland Dove, which brought the first St. Mary’s City settlers from England. All were built by the foundation with state funds and private donations.
Foundation officials say they hope the chapel, which will be open to tourists, will boost the number of visitors.
“I think we will get more return visitors and also a lot of people interested in watching the process of the rebuilding,” said foundation spokeswoman Karin Stanford.
Groups have held Mass out on the field and will be able to do so in the chapel, Stanford said. But, she added, it will primarily be a building for the public to visit.
The Jesuit priests that arrived in 1634 with about 200 other Englishmen to establish St. Mary’s City originally built a wooden chapel. In about 1667, Philip Calvert, thought to be the richest man in 17th century Maryland, funded the construction of the Brick Chapel, Reardon said.
The new building will not be a replica, because there are few existing written records describing the chapel, Reardon said. None are more descriptive than the Royal Governor Francis Nicholson, who referred to it as “A Good Brick Chappell” in 1697.
This description, the remaining foundation and recovered glass window shards and some bricks were all the architectural firm of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker of Albany, N.Y., had to go on. The architects were hired to draw the chapel blueprints.
They based their drawing on existing Jesuit churches, built in other countries at the same time.
It is believed the colonists imported six oval windows, stone flooring, an altar, a large iron cross and paintings from England.
“The church served as a real center of the Catholic community, even though they lived side-by-side with Protestants,” Reardon said.
In 1704, the Maryland General Assembly passed an Act Against Popery, ending religious toleration. According to written records, the Royal Governor John Seymour said to the town sheriff, “Take this key and lock the doors of the chapel.”
The building remained padlocked for several years, until Catholics took the building apart, sold the land to area farmers and carried the chapel bricks by wagon five miles south to St. Inigoes to build a house of worship.
Within the next few weeks, the foundation will announce the steering committee that will direct the fund-raising campaign, Chandler said. In addition to the private funds, the foundation will appeal for some federal funds for the chapel and some state funds for the Priest House. Jeanne Chandler, president of the foundation, said it has raised $187,000 so far, including donations from the Baltimore Diocese and the International Masonry Institute. -30-