Historic preservationists and a Roman Catholic religious order are in dispute over the fate of the Charles Carroll House, the Annapolis home of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Last week, the Redemptorists, the Catholic order that owns the Charles Carroll House and runs the adjacent St. Mary's parish, cut off funding to the nonprofit group that operates and leases the 18th-century Georgian mansion, citing pressing financial concerns elsewhere.
The move forced the nonprofit to lay off most of its staff and scale back operations and plans for $30 million worth of restorations to the home.
Now, the Charles Carroll House of Annapolis Inc. must find funding to operate the home - one of four signers' homes in the state capital - or it could be turned back over to the church and restoration efforts could end.
At stake is public access to the home, which at one time included private chapels where the Carrolls and other Catholics worshipped at a time when they were prohibited to do so publicly.
"This is one of the most important sites in the country," said Sandria Ross, who served as president and chief executive of the nonprofit corporation for 10 years before stepping down Friday.
"This is the best story [Catholics] have to give the world right now, and it is right here in Annapolis."
In a statement, the Rev. Kevin Moley, the new head of the Redemptorists order, cited "more pressing financial responsibilities." He said the order had given more than $2 million to support the house over the years.
"The CCHA knows firsthand how much financial aid we have given to the Charles Carroll House, and now the CCHA must determine if they will be able to provide the financial resources to keep the Charles Carroll House open," Moley wrote.
If the group cannot meet the financial requirements to run the home, he said, the Redemptorists will decide how to operate it.
The home, which sits behind St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church on the banks of Spa Creek, was the home to three generations of Charles Carrolls.
The first, Charles Carroll the Settler, an Irish immigrant who served briefly as attorney general of the Maryland colony, purchased the property in the early 18th century.
His son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, began construction of the main house in the 1720s.
His son, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who would sign the Declaration of Independence and become one of Maryland's first senators, was born there in 1737 and significantly expanded the house later.
Ross and others say the story of Charles Carroll of Carrollton is significant to the concept of religious freedom in this country.
He was restricted in his own religious practice, but he joined the fight for independence and helped assure, with his signature on the Declaration of Independence, that future generations could worship freely.
"Charles Carroll's signature on the Declaration of Independence represents the truth that all religions could be represented in a country that was founded for all men created equal," Ross said.
The Redemptorists purchased the house and surrounding property from Carroll's granddaughters in 1852. The order built St. Mary's church and, later, St. Mary's school on the property.
Over the years they expanded the house and used it as a school for student priests and as a homeless shelter, among other uses.
In 1987, the order established the separate nonprofit organization to care for and restore the home.
Over the next several years, about 20 percent of the home, the ground and first floors, was restored. Still, the rest of the home is in poor shape.
A hardhat is required to enter the second and third floors, where parts of the floor are unstable and the ceiling is crumbling.
Ross said that after she was hired in 1993, she set about building association programs and laying the groundwork to pursue the large grants necessary to proceed with the restoration.
The nonprofit, which received annual operational support from the Redemptorists, also developed a plan that would allow it to be self-sufficient by 2006.
The group raised money by renting out a section of the waterfront grounds for wedding receptions.
But as the nonprofit pushed for a long-term lease of the property that would allow it to pursue larger donations, the order asked it to stop holding such events. The nonprofit agreed, and a 90-year lease was signed.
Ross said her organization's efforts were further hampered by the Redemptorists' refusal to allow it to publicize its lease.
Then, as preservationists were about to launch a major capital campaign they had been preparing for years, the order's new leadership cut off funding.
The Rev. Denis J. Sweeney, St. Mary's pastor, said the order believed the nonprofit's financial independence "did not seem to be near or on the horizon."
He said his parish was squeezed for space, adding, "When you put a historic home in the midst of a pastoral setting, it is difficult for everyone."