St. Ignatius Marks 214 Years' Growth

October 22, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

St. Ignatius Church in Hickory has a history dating back more than 200 years.

Completed in 1792, the church holds the distinction of being the oldest original Roman Catholic church in continuous use in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Over its first 100 years as the church grew, six other churches were constructed in the county.

They include St. Patrick, built in 1819, west of Conowingo; St. John the Evangelist on Long Green Pike that was dedicated in 1822; St. Patrick, built in 1848 in Havre de Grace; St. Mary of the Assumption, built in 1855-1856, in Pylesville; St. Francis de Sales, built in 1866 in Abingdon; and St. Margaret, built in 1905, in Bel Air, according to a history written by Carol Ann Lehr.

Despite the new churches, St. Ignatius, originally a small 33-by-52-foot chapel, has never received a reprieve from the growth of its congregation.

However, in 2002 a new church building was dedicated and opened.

With the loans for the new church building nearly paid off, expansion plans are under way.

"We're maxed out on space at St. Ignatius," said Monsignor James Barker. "We've nearly finished paying off the loan for the new church, and now we're planning an expansion of the current facilities as well as refurbishing the historic church to preserve its history and our heritage."

The parish now has more than 4,000 families.

"This church dates back to the roots of the Catholic Church [in Harford County]," Barker said. "It really is holy ground. And people are drawn to it."

According to Lehr's version of the church's history, until 1776 when Jesuit priests were given the right to purchase up to 2 acres to build churches, Masses were said in homes.

"Three years and one month later, on Sept. 13, 1779, the Rev. Charles Sewall, S.J., who was in charge of the Mission of St. Joseph, purchased, in his name, two acres of land from Mr. Martin Preston. This was the first step in establishing a church at `The Hickory.' The construction of St. Ignatius was begun in 1786 and completed in 1792 during the long tenure of Reverend Sylvester Boarman, S.J. while in charge of the Mission at St. Joseph," Lehr wrote.

Features of the original church, according to Lehr's history, include window frames containing 53 clear panes of glass; a Palladian window above the entrance doors consisting of 32 panes; and a separate gallery for seating of slaves just inside and above the front door.

Eventually, the old church building was made 35 feet longer, but this wasn't nearly enough to serve the needs of the growing parish.

Other changes and upgrades in the history of the church include replacing the cypress roof with slate; extending the cemetery; closing St. Ignatius Parochial School; building a new sacristy; adding a kitchen; installing new flooring, a new furnace and recessed lighting; adding a parish center and, finally, the dedication of the new church building in 2002.

However, unlike some historic places, the church contains several artifacts that help piece together certain parts of parish history.

For example, in 1822, King Louis XVIII of France gave Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore a silver chalice as a gift to be presented to St. Ignatius in Hickory.

"The archbishop visited the king and told him about St. Ignatius," said Marion Townsley, the church historian. "The king gave him the chalice to bring back and give to the church."

In 1865, the bell tower was built during the ministry of the Rev. Patrick O'Connor, according to Lehr's history.

She wrote, "The massive bell was purchased from the Joshua Bell Regester Bell Foundry of Baltimore. It weighed 1,100 pounds and cost $598. At the cost of $672, the belfry, which was built in 1866, formed a new entrance and covered the Palladian window. Then this became the doorway to the bell tower."

Almost 20 years later, in 1884, according to the history by Lehr, a pipe organ, built in Boston by Hook & Hastings, that weighed 2 1/2 tons, was purchased for $1,400.

"The organ was so big they had to expand the area so it would fit," said Townsley, who played the organ - the oldest in continuous use in the archdiocese - and sang Irish tenor in the church for more than 20 years.

Original pipes

"The organ still has its original pipes, and every pipe plays," he said, as he began playing a few notes.

In addition to the artifacts, Barker said, the parish plans to return the church to the way it was in 1942, using old photographs.

"We have pictures that show two plaster angels. We plan to get them restored and place them back in the sanctuary," he said. "The photos also show a high altar. We want to put that back in the church, as well."

In the meantime, the parish is preserving bits and pieces of its history in a small museum on the lower level of the old church building. Included in the museum are photos and artifacts passed down for generations.

In the early 1900s, there weren't many dentists around, said Townsley. "So the dentists would travel from town to town and come to the church on Sunday and do dental work after Mass," he said. "They would hear people screaming because there was no anesthesia back then."

1911 letter

And then there's the story about the letter written in 1911 by the Rev. Joseph A. White and put in a tea can that was placed in the floor of the church.

"We're always finding little pieces of our history in the church," said Townsley. "People donate things, they tell us things, and we're keeping track of all of them."

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