Congregation To Renovate 1929 Mail-order Church

Davidsonville Members Believe Materials Came From Sears Catalog

July 07, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

When the fledgling congregation at Holy Family in Davidsonville needed a church building, late in the '20s, they started flipping throughthe pages of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

Catalogs such asSears offered several variations on churches, which were shipped in large sections for assembly. You wanted brick walls? Cedar shingles? You could order them. Fancy stained-glass? Plain windows for a cheaper budget? Check the right box.

Back then, the place where America shops met even the country's religious needs.

Church historians at Holy Family believe this heavenly mail order is the source of the small cedar chapel they are restoring this summer.

Though unable to find a bill of sale, older church members recall the Sears logo on the big boxes that contained their ready-made church, says the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Ryan.

The Roman Catholic church now boasts 700 families and last month dedicateda new sanctuary, a graceful, modern $3.2 million structure.

But the little catalog church, which comfortably fits about 100, hasn't been forgotten.

Ryan plans to restore the chapel to its 1929 mail-order newness, with the help of volunteer workers.

When the priest came to Holy Family five years ago from a large parish in Baltimore, he was struck by the small proportions of the catalog church.

The front pews were so close to the sacristy, "I said, 'my God, if people don't like me they can just reach out and smack me in the face,' " herecalls.

"But you get used to the intimacy, and then you like it."

Using old pictures of the chapel -- taken at weddings -- as a guide, the Holy Family congregation plans to restore the interior, complete with statues of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and small angels.

They want to strip the blue-painted wainscoting to its original and uncover the hardwood flooring beneath the tacked-down carpet.

They hope to locate the original Stations of the Cross.

The restoration is timely, because the stretch of road along Route 214,where the church stands, is being nominated as a national historic district.

Says Pat Holland, one church historian working on the project, "The church is important to us because it came from a catalog, and that's unusual."

Holland has been unable to find a Sears catalog from 1928 or 1929, and the Library of Congress is missing Sears catalogs from those years.

However, church members recall Sears selling churches -- as well as barns, schoolhouses and homes -- through their catalogs.

Two other catalogs of the era -- Modern Homes and Honor Built, both connected with Sears -- also sold homes by mail, Holland says. Prices varied, from $807 for a two-story house around 1913, to $24,010 for a good-sized house in the late '20s and early '30s.

Some catalogs even ran by denomination, such as a mail-order catalog of Methodist churches, which Holland found, dating to the 1880s.

"We can't prove exactly which (catalog) it was," she says.

But she is certain the church came from a catalog, in part because of a 1952-1953 school project in which fifth-graders at Davidsonville Elementary wrote a history of their community.

About 25 years after the church would have been ordered, the children quoted local historians as saying the church came from a catalog. The family of Mildred Watkins, the teacher and principal from that year, has a diary that mentions the church's catalog origins.

Oral history from church members at the time recounts how the church arrived by rail at Hall Station off Route 214 and was brought by horse and buggy to its present location, where it was assembled.

As the restoration of the chapel continues this summer, Holland and others hope to uncover a trademark thatwould verify the building's origins.

"If it's from Sears, we might find a logo under the baseboards, or at certain other spots," Holland explains.

Another route to unravel the secret would be to find the bill of ladings from the railroad. "Somebody has to have those archives somewhere," the historian says.

Holy Family began as a mission church in 1866. But the congregation's history was rocky, and in the 1920s, they had to meet in a private home, where the priest celebrated Mass on a grand piano.

The church needed a building, and on Sept. 19, 1929, they dedicated the mail-order building.

Ever since, visitors have been drawn to the little chapel with its country simplicity, its plain cedar shingles and white steeple.

Not a week goes by but young couples happen to see the church and come to inquire, " 'Who's the priest here? We'd like to get married in this church,' "Ryan says. "I can't tell you how many ask this. If I can, I (performthe ceremony)."

The new church was dedicated June 9 after two years of work, and the priest added a modern relic -- he confides this with a mischievous smile -- by placing bits of fur from his two dogs, and a lock of his own hair, beneath the concrete of the sanctuary.

But no one wanted to lose the old church, so they decided to restoreit for weddings and private masses.

"We decided to fix it up simply and economically, and do all the work ourselves," Ryan says. Church members have donated antique furniture for the restoration, as wellas small brass pieces for the altar.

The catalog church, which isopen 24 hours a day, will remain a place where people can stop "day and night to pray, like a wayside chapel," Ryan says.

Since the church arrived in pieces 62 years ago, "people have come in to pray andnobody has bothered them," he said. "We want it to stay that way."

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