Seton Hill Offers A Glimpse Into Baltimore's Early Days

August 15, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

The crape myrtle was at its summertime height the other day when I wandered into the Seton Hill neighborhood to see the area's newest arrival. Without fanfare, a new Mother Seton House visitors center has risen in one of Baltimore's most venerable locations. It's tucked between Mother Seton House and the old St. Mary's Seminary Chapel.

This location, only a few blocks west of the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon Place, is not as well known as it should be. St. Mary's Park and the adjoining collection of National Register of Historic Place landmarks provide a delightfully atmospheric glimpse into early Baltimore.

Who knew about that stand of ancient trees hidden by the monastic walls here?

The ebb and flow of city development never chewed up this part of Baltimore too much, so the Seton Hill neighborhood is like an antique overlooked by pickers and collectors. It also helps that the Society of St. Sulpice, the Roman Catholic congregation of priests founded in France, has owned this property since 1791. The land, which also fronts on lower Pennsylvania Avenue, was then known as the One Mile Tavern.

"It really is the patrimony of Baltimore," said the Rev. John C. Kemper, a member of the Sulpician order who resides here, in what is officially known as the St. Mary's Spiritual Center and Historic Site. Visitors are welcome seven days a week.

The handsome new center, the work of GWWO Architects, was constructed around the old seminary walls. It's a masterful reknitting of several old structures. It's also a structure that doesn't call attention to itself while bringing all the museum amenities to this worthy setting.

Mother Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bailey Seton, came to live in a large Baltimore home here. In a letter dated July 4, 1808, she called the house a "neat delightful mansion" built in the "French style of folding windows." She established a school here that is credited with being the precursor of the American parochial school system.

In the mid-1970s I watched as the old St. Mary's Seminary was demolished. It was a building that we would save and preserve today. It was a terrible loss, but the new visitors center helps fill in part of the void where the old structure once stood. A fine stone medallion, carved with the letters A and M, for the Latin phrase, "auspice Maria" "under Mary's care," is incorporated into the stone walls. It was an artifact that the wreckers saved.

The new facility helps shed light on one of Baltimore's greatest architectural treasures here, St. Mary's Chapel, designed in 1806 by French architect Maximilian Godefroy. Tucked into a grove of trees and offset by attractive new landscaping and beds of roses, the chapel is a treasure of design and proportion. Many sources say it is the first neo-Gothic church in the country. Godefroy probably designed the Seton House as well.

I was delighted to hear there is some consideration being given to restore the chapel's interior, which underwent a hurricane of 1960s redecoration during that decade's mania for liturgical updating. It's a powerful space. I can only imagine the wonderful sound of seminarians chanting in Latin here.

Thousands of priests were trained at this 600 N. Paca St. address. And from 1799 to 1852, it was the place for Baltimore's lay students to get their liberal arts college education. It's quite a gracious little preserve.

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