Old key may help unlock answers at chapel site

December 05, 1990

The publicity surrounding the digging at the Great Brick Chapel has paid some curious dividends.

Henry Miller, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City, said that six months ago, descendants of an early St. Mary's family, now living in Front Royal, Va., produced a 7 1/2 -inch-long iron key, which family legend said was the key to the church in St. Mary's City.

The family's genealogy checked out, Miller said, and the key is very old.

"We keep hoping to find the lock," Miller joked. "That would be great."

Until they do, they can't know for certain whether it's really the key turned by the sheriff of St. Mary's County when he was ordered by the governor to lock the church in 1704. The order followed passage of legislation banning public worship by Catholics in Maryland.

The chapel was dismantled in 1704, and everything -- its contents, bricks, stone floor and grave markers -- was removed by the Jesuits. The building materials have been identified in several 18th century buildings in Southern Maryland.

The whereabouts of church records and relics has remained a mystery ever since. But Miller has been collecting some tantalizing clues.

In Washington, an iron cross said to have been removed from St. Mary's City in 1704 has turned up at Georgetown University.

And Miller learned a year ago about a beautiful, late 17th century tabernacle -- an altar storage cabinet -- said to have come from St. Mary's City with links to the Calvert family. It now resides in a Baltimore convent.

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