Reconstruction of Our Lady's Center, a chapel dedicated to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, will begin soon, a few hundred yards from one of Ellicott City's busiest commercial areas. The chapel was destroyed by a fire just a few days before Christmas a year ago.
Work on the new chapel is scheduled to start at the end of next month. Weekday Masses conducted by area priests will continue in a trailer on the property, located off Rogers Avenue just south of U.S. 40.
Between 10 and 20 people visit the trailer each day to attend the only noon Mass offered in the area. It is convenient for people working nearby, said center manager Veronica Henson.
Yellow caution tape now warns visitors to keep away from the foundation of the original building, which will form the base of the planned two-story, 5,000-square-foot chapel and bookstore. The old chapel held about 60 worshipers and the new one is expected to seat 90.
The center was established in 1976 by the late Frank R. Lancelotta Sr., who was inspired by the restoration of a chapel in Italy that his family had done, said Robert, his son and president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Our Lady's Center Inc.
After the Rhode Island entrepreneur moved to Ellicott City, where he owned lumber, real estate and insurance companies, the senior Lancelotta built a little chapel behind a larger building he owned on U.S. 40, which is now an Acura dealership.
"He had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary," Robert Lancelotta said. His father often took pilgrimages to European religious sites and even had a vanity license plate that read "ROSARY."
In 1985, the chapel was moved to its current location about 1,200 feet down a driveway from Rogers Avenue. The older Lancelotta remodeled a cinderblock building nestled next to a burbling stream and built a wooden chapel on the back.
After his father's death in 1988, "I vowed to perpetuate it," Robert Lancelotta said.
But a fire started by an unattended candle destroyed the cinderblock building Dec. 22 of last year. Only Advent candles and religious statues from the bookstore survived the blaze.
Until services moved into a modular trailer in May, center manager Henson worked out of her car in the parking lot.
The center only had a year to apply to Howard County for permission to rebuild, because the chapel was located on a flood plain. The organization received the construction permit Dec. 20 -- just days before the deadline.
Robert Lancelotta expects that the project will cost more than $350,000 and will be completed by spring or early summer. A temporary bookstore will also continue in the trailer until the new building opens.
There are more than 100 sites devoted to the Virgin Mary throughout the United States, said Father Johann Roten, director of the Marian Library and International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Some of the largest receive more than 1 million visitors a year.
Catholics and members of some Christian denominations pray to Mary or saints to intercede on their behalf, Roten said. Roman Catholic Church teaching since the Vatican II Council in the early 1960s directs devotion toward Mary's willingness to do God's will although she did not understand the purpose. "She becomes the model of our Christian faith," he said.
Interest in Marian devotion is increasing, Roten said, citing a rise in Marian conferences and publication of books about Mary.
Patrick Massari, 42, of Ellicott City attends Mass at Our Lady's Center as often as his job as an employment discrimination lawyer in Washington allows.
Our Lady's Center is "a very special devoted orthodox group of people," Massari said. "It's an oasis of spirituality and true Catholic faith that's hard to find these days."
For example, people kneel to receive Holy Communion, and the tabernacle, which holds the Communion, is placed in the center of the altar.
The center is furnished with statues, candles, relics of saints and an altar rescued from two churches in Baltimore that were closing.
Our Lady's Center ordered a new statue of Our Lady of Fatima, the 1917 apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, to replace the one that "ended up a charred stub," Henson said. Before the service begins at noon, people often recite the rosary.
Teresa McAllister, 47, a financial consultant from College Park who attends Mass two to three times a week, was impressed by the selection of religious materials in the store, which offers statues, rosaries, flashcards and greeting cards.
"They have the best bookstore. None of it's lightweight," she said.
Managers at the center do not deserve such praise, Henson said.
"God takes credit," she said. "I just take cash and checks."