Suspicious fire destroys former seminary, college Five-story structure in Ilchester had been vacant since 1970s

November 02, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

The former St. Mary's College in Howard County, once a seminary and retreat for priests of the Redemptorists order, went up in flames yesterday morning, in a blaze that state fire officials have labeled suspicious.

County firefighters will let the five-story brick structure in Ilchester smolder out over the next few days, then have it demolished.

Investigators with the state fire marshal's office are calling the blaze suspicious because the building has been vacant since the 1970s, according to Allen L. Ward, deputy chief state fire marshal.

Baltimore County firefighters, called to the scene first, called Howard County firefighters at about 5: 15 a.m.

By then, the building was engulfed in flames, but it is not clear when the blaze started, said Capt. Sean Kelly of the Howard County Fire Department.

A county fire chief on the scene determined that firefighters would be needlessly endangered if they tried to enter the building or stood near it because the 12-inch thick walls might collapse, Kelly said.

"There was no reason to put anybody in danger," Kelly said.

A caretaker who lives on the property, Allen Rufus Hudson, will not be allowed to live in his nearby home because a building wall may fall on it, Kelly said.

Gray smoke mixed with fog over the burned-out shell atop a wooded hill yesterday afternoon.

The destruction of the five-story dormlike building marks the end of the last remnant of a priest's college that opened on the property in the 1860s, according to Joetta Cramm, author of "Howard County: A Pictorial History."

Church's original home

The property was also the original home of the Roman Catholic congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, now nearby on Ilchester Road.

It was last used as a seminary in the 1970s.

"I think it was a significant building in its day," Cramm said yesterday. But, she added, "Anytime you hold a property like that empty, it doesn't do it any good."

In the 1980s, a local architect wanted to buy the property and turn it the former seminary into a luxury apartment building with 75 units, but the plan violated zoning laws.

Current owner unknown

The property owner at the time, Michael Nibali of Ellicott City, then decided to sell the parcel to a buyer who would turn it over to a religious group.

Hudson would not identify the owners for whom he now works, Kelly said.

Fire officials closed Bonnie Branch Road between Ilchester and Beechwood roads yesterday to prevent onlookers from reaching the private property.

Unestimated damage

Firefighters will remain at the site in shifts until the fire is extinguished, Kelly said.

He said he has not been able to estimate damage.

"It's obviously a building that means something, at least to people who care about history," Kelly said. "But we can't really put a finger on it."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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