Patient effort to restore a historic chapel

January 21, 2007|By Rebecca Logan | Rebecca Logan,special to the sun

St. Patrick's chapel never grew past its two rows of pews.

Of the six mission churches started by St. Ignatius in the Harford County town of Hickory, the tiny Cecil County chapel near Conowingo is the only one that never expanded or flourished as an independent parish.

That's according to William Pare, treasurer of the St. Patrick's Chapel Historical Society, an organization raising money to repair and preserve a chapel built by Irish immigrants nearly 188 years ago.

"The money has been coming in a little bit at a time," Pare said."Sometimes you might wish it were faster," but we'll get there."

There's a definite air of patience about St. Patrick's.

Even in its earliest days, Mass was celebrated in the chapel only every fifth Sunday. That's because in 1819 - when a Jesuit priest at St. Ignatius spent $10 to buy land for the chapel - traveling there by horse from Hickory was quite a haul, according to a booklet Pare put together called St. Patrick's Chapel: A Historical Sketch.

In later years, St. Patrick's had to wait years, even decades, between Masses, not to mention upkeep.

Pare quotes in his booklet a letter written by a man describing his 1920 stop at the chapel during his fall walk from York County, Pa., to an uncle's house in Arcadia Station.

The man wrote:

"On the top of the river hill, I came across a little church, the open door swinging in the breeze invited me in, a tired boy, to enter and sit for a rest. I remember it as giving out an air of desertion. ... I have gone by that church once each five years or so since then. At times it seemed to have become a chicken coop, and at others, in a burst of hope, the graveyard would be `brushed out' and the door nailed shut to keep out the livestock."

Pare lists many circumstances that might have worked against growth for St. Patrick's.

St. Teresa in Port Deposit and St. Agnes in Rising Sun were built later in the 1800s, introducing new options for the area's Catholics. The once crucial local canal trade had ended by 1900. And the original town of Conowingo was swallowed by water when a dam opened in 1928.

Responsibility for administering St. Patrick's chapel on Pleasant Grove Road kept shifting - from St. Ignatius, to St. Patrick's in Havre de Grace, to St. Teresa and, finally, to Good Shepherd in Perryville, now the chapel's host parish.

Like Pare, Jack Scarbath, president of the St. Patrick's Chapel Historical Society, attends St. Agnes, which also falls under Good Shepherd's jurisdiction.

Key people linked to Good Shepherd in recent decades headed up sporadic renovations such as slate roof repairs in the 1950s and fixing the chimney and painting the place in the early 1970s. Subsequent Eagle Scout projects produced interior work and new shutters.

During a temporary assignment at Good Shepherd in 2000, an Irish priest visited the chapel and celebrated a Mass there that summer, a tradition that has been carried on since.

But given the financial demands on today's parishes, forming a historical society made sense, Scarbath said.

"Over the years we have had different pastors who have had different degrees of interest to do something here and do 17 cents there and so forth," Scarbath said. "We decided it's time to do something and do it correctly. And with the backgrounds of the people we have interested in this restoration, we're going to get it done."

When it comes to needed repairs, Scarbath - who built a career in industrial abrasives after playing football at the University of Maryland and in the National Football League - isn't interested in testing the limits of St. Patrick's patience.

He ran his hand along the stone foundation that is shifting away from the floorboards at the chapel's front corner.

"We need to take care of that soon," he said.

The chapel will have to be lifted to install new footings; the foundation will have to be rebuilt; a vapor barrier will have to be installed; and floor joists will have to be attached, Scarbath said.

The group also hopes to replace a plywood floor with pine boards, fix the original plaster walls and remove plywood paneling that went up during a past renovation. The group says it will need about $139,000 to get everything done.

So Scarbath and Pare, who said they have felt a sense of duty to the chapel since they first saw it, are among those who have been looking for folks of like mind.

They have made pitches at meetings and given chapel tours to descendants of families known to have worshiped in the chapel or to have been buried beside it.

Last month was the first time James Poole of Whiteford had seen inside the chapel where two of his ancestors were married in 1832 in what is believed to be the first recorded wedding at St. Patrick's.

"It's unbelievable that place is still standing, given its history," Poole said.

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