After 3 Centuries, A Rebirth

Dismantled Chapel In St. Mary's City To Be Reconstructed

April 26, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S CITY -- In 1704, Maryland's Protestant-controlled government padlocked the Roman Catholic chapel in St. Mary's City as part of a campaign of religious and political suppression of Catholics.

Jesuit missionaries later dismantled the "Brick Chapel" and carted off its bricks for use elsewhere. The foundation and burial ground were plowed under by farmers and nearly forgotten.

Yesterday, the private Historic St. Mary's City Foundation unveiled a five-year, $5 million plan to rebuild the church on its 330-year-old footings. It would be a monument to Maryland's early experiment in religious toleration and a demonstration of 17th-century colonial life and technology.

"We want you to experience the same thing 17th-century settlers would have experienced, walking into it as a church," said Henry M. Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City, the state-owned archaeological park that includes the chapel site.

The finished church would not be consecrated for Catholic worship, and the money for its reconstruction and endowment would be raised from private donations, Miller said. Neither the Catholic Church nor the state would be asked for financial support.

An initial $50,000 has been donated by Dr. J. Patrick Jarboe, a physician and member of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission.

Commission Chairman Benjamin C. Bradlee expressed confidence that the rest of the $5 million could be raised. "We have an exciting reconstruction of the first Catholic Church in English America, and if we can't raise the money for that, I'm crazy," he said.

Maryland was founded at St. Mary's City in 1634 by the family of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. He was carrying out the plan of his father, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, to establish a colony that would make money and provide a political and religious sanctuary for English Catholics.

The Calverts needed to attract Protestant settlers, too, to ensure the colony's financial success and to deflect the suspicion of authorities in England. So religious toleration and the separation of church and state became practical solutions as well as moral ones.

In keeping with those ideas, the town plan at St. Mary's City placed the State House and chapel at opposite ends of the village.

The Brick Chapel was built by Jesuit missionaries about 1667 to replace a wooden one.

Miller said the chapel's formal design and monumental dimensions probably reflected the optimism Catholics felt after the 1660 Restoration of the Catholic King Charles II to the throne after the English Civil War. His reign brought a brief relaxation of the religious and political persecution of English Catholics.

Historians see the Brick Chapel as the birthplace of Roman Catholicism in English America and as a cornerstone of the constitutional principals of religious tolerance and church-state separation.

Its destruction was also a warning. "It shows us, no matter how permanent we try to make our structures, how fragile our toleration principle really is," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist.

"The fact that it had to be dismantled and destroyed because of a rising tide of intoleration is just as important as its construction in the first place," he said.

Resurgent anti-Catholic sentiment after 1689 led to the destruction of the chapel and helped to obliterate its memory. No drawings have been found, and only three useful descriptive references.

The proposed reconstruction design was developed from a study of the archaeological remains, English church design and building technology of the day, and 17th-century Jesuit church architecture in Europe and elsewhere.

The project's architect, John I. Mesick of Albany, N.Y., has worked on historic restorations at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Poplar Forest homes. But he said he had never tackled a project with so few hard facts to draw from. He called his design a representation of "what might have been here, based on the evidence."

A decade of archaeological excavations revealed that the Brick Chapel was cross-shaped, 54 feet long and 57 feet wide at its arms, or transepts. Its 3-foot-thick foundation, set 5 feet into the ground, was strong enough to support walls 25 to 30 feet high.

(Under the north transept, archaeologists found three coffins in 1990. They were opened in 1992, and historians and forensic anthropologists concluded that they contained the remains of Philip Calvert, Maryland's first chancellor and half-brother of Cecil Calvert; Philip's wife, Ann Wolsey; and an unidentified infant girl.)

Archaeologists found evidence of plaster from the interior walls and of decorative brick mullions separating the window panes.

Mesick's drawings show a cross-shaped, red-brick chapel with 23-foot-high walls and a peaked tile roof rising 50 feet from the churchyard.

The interior view shows a sun-washed sanctuary with an ornate, baroque altar. It will eventually include a painting of the Madonna and Child, which would have been favored by the Calverts.

The interior walls rise to a semicircular "barrel vault" ceiling. There are four tall, leaded glass windows on each side. The floor is paved with stone slabs, and there are no seats.

Worshipers would have "mostly stood or knelt on the stone," Miller said. "None of the period churches we found illustrations of had benches in them, or pews."

Thomas Lucas, fine arts chairman at San Francisco State University and an expert on Jesuit architecture, provided much of the scholarship for the design.

He said Jesuit church architecture of the 17th century was influenced by Baroque church architecture in Rome. Its practitioners were trained in Belgium, France and Italy. In their view, "form follows function." A radical concept for the time, it meant the design should support and illuminate the Catholic ritual as a "sacred drama," rather than a "somber duty."

Pub Date: 4/26/97

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