Church a `miracle' of survival

In Cecil County, St. Patrick's has stood for 200 years

April 13, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

St. Patrick's Chapel, a simple frame building in a remote area of Cecil County, has endured for nearly 200 years, most likely due to the solid framework built into it by Irish immigrants working along the Susquehanna River.

The names of many members of those families who dug the canals and manned the barges that allowed 19th-century commerce to flourish between Baltimore and Philadelphia are etched on the simple tombstones that fill the graveyard surrounding the chapel.

Their descendants - the Glackins, the Pooles, the McGuigans - have long since moved on from Pilottown, a small enclave near the Pennsylvania border.

"The irony is that members of those three families all moved to Harford County to farms within sight of each other," said Sue Ann Glackin Dillport of Whiteford, whose Irish ancestors, John and Ann Glackin, are buried in the chapel's cemetery. "Our family considers the chapel our home church."

The extended Glackin clan will hold its 75th reunion in June and many members will likely visit the chapel, that "is precious to all of us,' she said.

"The fact that it has survived is a bit of a miracle," Dillport said. "Only God knows how."

The modest building stands in testament to strong faith, honest labor and a deep respect for newly-found freedom in a nation built on tolerance, said Bill Pare of Rising Sun, who has researched the chapel's history.

"Their kinfolk in Ireland had no religious rights, but here those rights were guaranteed and they could build their own church," Pare said.

With an assist from his friend and neighbor, Jack Scarbath, Pare is working to restore the chapel, among the oldest standing houses of worship in the state and registered on the Maryland Historic Trust.

The St. Patrick's Chapel Historical Society, of which Scarbath is president and Pare is treasurer, has raised about $110,000 of the $160,000 in estimated renovation costs.

"This chapel is part of our ancestry and its builders were our forefathers," said Scarbath. "This represents what this country was built on: the freedom to choose your own religion."

A benefit concert on Sunday at John Carroll High School in Bel Air promises an afternoon of Irish music, song and dance that should spur interest in the project, they said.

The society will display its photo collection, among which is a picture of John Poole and Mary Ann Mackey, whose 1832 marriage marked the chapel's first wedding. The photos detail how the small parish evolved and how its chapel fell into disrepair when the railroads replaced the river canals.

Many of the homes, farms and businesses were lost during construction of the Conowingo Dam in 1928, but St. Patrick's - on a hillside about a half-mile from the Susquehanna River - escaped the flood waters.

"You can't look at that building without thinking about the history made in that area," said Barbara Caine, state treasurer of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, a heritage association that supports the project and has helped organize and promote the concert.

Built in 1819 on a half-acre, which the soon-to-be pastor the Rev. Roger Smith purchased from Daniel Glackin, the small chapel accommodates about 75 worshipers in a spartan interior filled with straight-backed wooden pews.

"You have to sit straight and hold your breath to fit in these pews," said Scarbath. "And there are no pads on these kneelers."

The choir loft housed a pump organ, now preserved in a Rising Sun museum. Much of the original amenities remain, including the wooden altar, unembellished save for a modest tabernacle.

The lectern, simple stools for the altar servers, delicately carved stations of the cross and a Holy Water font with an attached cross all date to the chapel's founding.

"There really is nothing elaborate at all," Pare said. "It reminds me of the little countryside churches you see in Ireland."

The only ornament to its stark white exterior and green shuttered windows is the cross atop the ridge of its intact slate roof.

"That slate roof is what has saved this building all these years," Pare said.

The last large public Mass was celebrated in 1934, although a visiting priest holds a service for the preservation society there every September.

Originally part of the Baltimore diocese, the property now belongs to the Wilmington bishopric. Maintenance falls to three nearby sister parishes, but restoration is beyond the means of those congregations, Pare and Scarbath said. They set up a nonprofit foundation two years ago to raise funds.

The building today is beset with structural problems, most notably its deteriorating stone foundation.

The first phase of the restoration will be to raise the building and replace the foundation. A sturdy underpinning should stabilize the structure and allow the remaining work, like removing the plywood flooring and returning to the pine planking that still surrounds the altar area, to proceed.

"We are hoping the concert gives us the shot we need to get this project started," Pare said.

Entertainers include the Irishman's Chorale, one of the area's largest choral groups, the Irish Jasper Green, a group that promises rollicking traditional tunes and the Egan School of Irish Dance. For those feeling lucky, purchase of raffle tickets could mean going home with a piece of Waterford crystal or Belleek pottery. And the afternoon will not pass without refreshments.

Pare and Scarbath possess "not a drop of Irish blood" between them, they said, but they both remain determined to preserve an Irish landmark.

"This building is almost 200 years old and still standing," Pare said. "This church is a real gem. We can't let it fall apart. We have to get to it!"

The concert begins at 3 p.m. at John Carroll High School, 703 Churchville Road, Bel Air. The $10 tickets are available at the door. Information: www.stpatschapel.org or 410-679-0882 or 410-658-4378.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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