St. Thomas' gives church forefather final resting place

Sewage dig unearthed 175-year-old bones

May 17, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Vicki Almond was peering into her computer screen one recent afternoon when a plumber overseeing excavation work at St. Thomas' Church interrupted her with some startling news.

"You'll never believe what we found," plumber Forris Waddell said.

"What?" responded Almond, parish administrator at the Owings Mills church. "A body?"

"How did you know?" Waddell answered.

Almond had been joking.

After all, the grounds of the centuries-old church are marked with row after row of tombstones. But at that moment, trench work for a new sewage line was about to become an archaeological dig.

What followed was an excursion into a historic church's past, an effort to put a name to a pile of clay-stained bones -- and a solemn exercise in tending to a forefather's remains.

"I felt a real connection, like this was someone I was really taking care of," Almond said later. "It wasn't just a bag of bones. He took on a personality. I was calling him `Major.' "

"Major," as in Maj. David Hopkins, described in the church's history book as a 19th-century commandant of the U.S. Arsenal in Pikesville. That history shows Hopkins was a parishioner who oversaw the refurbishment of the circa 1742 sanctuary at St. Thomas', an Episcopal congregation off Reisterstown Road.

Hopkins was buried outside that building in 1824. More than six decades later, when the sanctuary was expanded beyond his gravesite, his coffin was relocated straight down, beneath a dirt basement. In 1969, the basement floor was coated with cement -- covering the grave until May 7, when the plumbers began wielding their jackhammers.

That's when they found bones protruding from the soil.

"I was just digging along and he started turning up," said plumber Forrest Crispin. "I had a few leg bones, a few rib bones. I said, `I've got to stop.' "

Crispin told Waddell, who alerted Almond to the find. She summoned Bill Pistell, the church's cemetery warden, and the Rev. William P. Baxter Jr., parish rector.

An identification

On the brick floor of the sanctuary above is a stone marking the burial with the words: "Major David Hopkins, March 8, 1824."

Pistell, the church's unofficial historian, quickly suspected that they had come upon Hopkins' grave.

Police were called, and Officer Alexa Beare -- who had worked six years as an archaeologist in Wyoming, Alaska and along the East Coast -- came to take a look. She said that when she saw crumbling bones in long-undisturbed subsoil, it was clear that this was no crime scene.

Using a trowel and a small shovel to sift through the dirt, church leaders found about three dozen pieces of bone, ranging in size from a half-inch to what seemed to be an intact leg bone.

They found a piece of skull, and the lower jaw, complete with two teeth. They found splinters of wood and a metal strip with nails, apparently what was left of the coffin. They found a small metal cross that looked as if it might have been from a military uniform.

For four hours Tuesday, they collected the remains and placed them in a box that once held a ream of copy paper. They lined the box with purple felt -- a touch that spoke of eternal life.

A funeral home donated a small white coffin. Church officials placed the purple felt and the remains of Hopkins into the casket, with the military cross in an envelope. They placed photocopies of the two pages of church history dealing with Hopkins.

They included a deed to a cemetery lot. Records showed the church owed Hopkins $201 for his renovation work at the time of his death.

Now the debt would be paid.

On Wednesday, Pistell dug a small grave under a stately, vine-covered poplar tree, near graves marked Owings, Cradock, Lyons and other names from Owings Mills' past.

The coffin was lowered into the ground, and Pistell covered it with dirt. A few church members lowered their heads in silent prayer.

The church plans to mark the grave with a flat stone reading: "Major David Hopkins, buried March 8, 1824, relocated May 12, 1999."

Church leaders said responding to the discovery of the bones was a spiritual experience.

"It wasn't really that creepy. It was really rather exciting, thinking that we knew who he was and we were kind of saving him," Almond said. "We didn't want him to be lying next to the new sewage line.

"There won't be a chance now of him being disturbed again."

Baxter, the rector, said: "Our bones should be treated with respect and reverence. I believe that the important part is in God's hands."

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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