1855 building had key role in history of parish now home to 4,300 Roman Catholic families

A forgotten chapel rises again

March 19, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Monsignor Joseph Luca became pastor of St. Louis Church a decade ago, he was deeply saddened by the dilapidated condition of the church's original chapel.

On his first visit to the country church -about a mile west of the present parish site, in Clarksville, just off Ten Oaks Road - the chapel building seemed beyond repair.

A window had been knocked out of the wall facing the road, destroying the appearance of the quaint chapel. The floor inside the chapel was a huge pit of dirt. The roof sagged and the walls were crumbling.

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's Howard Hometown Guide, the article on St. Louis chapel inadvertently included a photograph of the 1980 church's large mosaic depicting St. Louis holding his crown upward, rather than the stained-glass version of the same theme that is displayed in the 1889 chapel. The Sun regrets the error.

Although he had his hands full building a new church to accommodate the needs of the growing parish, which has increased from 2,800 to 4,300 families in the past decade, Luca couldn't turn his back on the ruined chapel.

As a start, because of his great love and respect for history - although he wasn't sure how his idea would be received - Luca included the chapel in a capital campaign called Preserving Our Treasured Legacy that was initiated to raise money to build a bigger church.

"There are a number of people that go to Europe and `ooh' and `aah' over the magnificent churches there," Luca said. "In our country, we sometimes fail to realize that we have a responsibility to take care of our churches big or small, to preserve their history for succeeding generations."

Nearly a decade since the initiation of the campaign, Luca will see his dream to preserve the chapel realized when it reopens shortly after the April 23 dedication of the new church.

The history of the chapel began with the building of Doughoregan Manor, a national historic landmark, by Charles Carroll of Annapolis, a Catholic, about 1727.

At that time, establishing Roman Catholic churches was prohibited in the colony of Maryland. However, because private property was protected under British law, wealthy landowners could build chapels, Luca said. Carroll decided to build a chapel at his manor home that he opened to Catholics looking for a place to worship.

The chapel at Doughoregan Manor served as the primary meeting place for the local Catholic community until about 1855, when a larger chapel was constructed.

"It was in this little chapel, surrounded by the graves of loved ones, that St. Louis Parish, one of the largest in the state, developed its own identity," Luca said.

The parish members named the church after St. Louis - the French king Louis IX - in part because of the connection between France and the Catholics in the American Colonies, Luca said.

Luca gave his account of Louis IX's life, starting with his being crowned king of France at age 12. His mother decided he was probably not ready to take the throne, and she took over until he was better prepared. In addition to tutoring him on secular subjects, his mother gave him daily lessons in Catholic beliefs and values. His mother told Louis that once he became king he would have a wonderful opportunity to touch lives.

"When Louis became king, he took off his crown and made a vow offering his life and crown for the glory of God," Luca said. Inside the chapel, a stained-glass window depicts Louis taking off his crown.

Eventually, what started as a small farm community began to grow so rapidly that in 1889 yet another chapel had to be built to accommodate the growth.

At that time, several sacred items were removed from the 1855 chapel, and it was converted to a makeshift kitchen that was used for the Clarksville Picnic. When the location of the picnic moved, the building was used for storage and was later abandoned.

After decades of neglect the building deteriorated so badly that church officials thought it was going to collapse.

"When I first saw it, I was very sad," Luca said. "I thought it was hopeless."

But Luca wasn't willing to give up on the historic treasure. A committee was formed and work began on the $475,000 restoration project. Because there were no available photos, the committee members used sketches and memories to determine what the church may have looked like in 1855.

They found the original cornerstone and some of the wood used to build the floor.

But mostly, they had to re-create based on what was typical for that era.

"We determined with certainty that the chapel had a wooden shake roof," Luca said. "A lot of the interior work we had to play by ear."

As for the uses for the building, Luca said he has envisioned several things for the parish of many chapels.

Along with more than 14,000 members, 65 parish ministries need a place to meet.

After some logistical planning, Luca decided to use the 1889 chapel as a meeting place and an event chapel for weddings and baptisms.

Masses will be held in the main church. Because of its location within the church cemetery, the 1855 chapel will be used for funerals on inclement weather days, Luca said.

"It's also going to be a place that people can come and sit after paying their respects to their loved ones that have passed away," Luca said.

Regardless of how it is used, the chapel is there for future generations to enjoy.

"This legacy that is ours is amazing," Luca said.

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