Historic Catholic chapel in Cecil County restored, reopens Saturday

St. Patrick's fell into disrepair after Conowingo flooding

  • Jack Scarbath and Bill Pare (R) inside the newly renovated chapel. St. Patrick's Chapel, a simple frame church, built nearly 200 years ago in Cecil County by Irish railroad workers, has been restored and will be rededicated Saturday. Volunteers raised about $200,000 to complete the restoration of the wooden chapel.
Jack Scarbath and Bill Pare (R) inside the newly renovated chapel.… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 16, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Volunteers built a modest chapel in a remote area of northeastern Maryland nearly 200 years ago and dedicated it to the patron saint of their homeland. Volunteers today have saved that simple frame building from ruin.

Many descendants of those early settlers will gather at the fully restored St. Patrick's Chapel in Cecil County for a rededication Saturday. They will offer prayers of gratitude to their forebears and to those who have preserved their legacy.

The 10 a.m. Mass in a hamlet known as Pilottown is expected to draw the great-grandchildren of the Irish immigrants who settled along the Susquehanna River in the early 19th century. The chapel fell into disrepair after the nearby population dispersed, forced to surrounding towns by flooding that came with the Conowingo Dam in the 1920s.

At the entry, worshippers will see the original copper cross installed at the apex of the chapel's slate roof, and the recently repainted wood sign that reads "St. Patrick's Chapel Est. 1819." They will walk stone paths and see gravestones from the 1800s in the cemetery beside the chapel on the half-acre property. They will sit in narrow, wooden pews and kneel on an oak floor.

Bill Pare of Rising Sun, who researched the chapel's history and helped organize the restoration effort, called the structure a testament to strong faith and honest labor. He first attended Mass there 10 years ago. While he felt the spirit of the place, he was dismayed by its declining state. He knew he had to save it.

"It's almost 200 years old and still standing," he said. "We could not let it fall apart. It was important because it had tremendous historical significance and it was part of our heritage. What we saw was a building that, if not corrected, would be lost — lost to our children and future generations."

He credited those early settlers, who dug the canals and manned the barges that spurred commerce between Philadelphia and Baltimore, for building such a solid framework. They set their chapel on a stone foundation and gave it a slate roof, which needed only a few dozen replacement shingles to keep it sound.

"That slate roof saved the building all these years," said Jack Scarbath, president of the St. Patrick's Chapel Historical Society. "We had to build a whole new foundation, but we used a lot of the old stones for the veneer."

The society raised nearly $200,000 over several years, mostly through donations. Members also held Irish concerts, quilt raffles and sold "Pies for Paddy," home-baked by the hundreds for a popular annual fundraiser. The society made every effort to preserve the original character of the building.

The work involved lifting the sunken foundation, replacing the exterior shingles and removing paneling from the interior walls and plywood covering from the floors. The exterior colors are unchanged from the stark white — trimmed with emerald green on the shutters, door and molding.

Inside, the Stations of the Cross, refurbished to show the finely sculpted figures, still line the side walls and the same holy water font is at the entry. Delicate gold stenciling, the only adornment on the white walls, accents the corners and window frames. The traditional poor box, for donations to the needy, is absent.

"This project has put us in the poor box," Scarbath said. "We will probably put out a laundry basket for donations Saturday."

The polished oak floors replicate those of the 19th century, and the statue of St. Patrick, also new, was donated by James Poole, a descendant of John and Mary Ann Mackey Poole, whose 1832 marriage was the chapel's first wedding.

Just last week, the pump organ, which the congregation purchased in 1864, was returned to the choir loft from the home of John Ehrhart and dedicated to the memory of his mother, Rose Ehrhart, a longtime organist at area churches.

"It took three men to get it up here, as the son of the woman who played it for years watched," Scarbath said. "He told us it was time the organ came back home."

The organ will accompany the Irishman's Chorale as they intone familiar hymns at the rededication. A Celtic cross adorns the lectern crafted from wood retrieved from the chapel's floor joists. Bishop W. Francis Malooly, vicar of the diocese of Wilmington, Del., will officiate at the service and preach from that lectern Saturday.

"I think you can truly feel the Holy Spirit within these walls," Pare said. "You walk in and you want to stay and say thank you to the Irish who built it."

The crowd Saturday is expected to be about four times the 80-seat capacity of the chapel. A large tent with a closed-circuit TV will accommodate overflow visitors. After Mass, visitors will hear more Irish music, likely a bit lively, and savor refreshments, including a pie or two, and see a photo display of the history and the restoration of the chapel.

"We are not done yet," said Pare, the society's treasurer. Volunteers are already planning landscaping projects and repairs to the gravestones, he said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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