At Shrine of St. Anthony, a taste of history and a sense of peace

Tour allows visitors to Ellicott City property to take in bucolic sights while imagining the past

  • Fr. Michael Heine is pictured in the chapel of the Shrine of St. Anthony.
Fr. Michael Heine is pictured in the chapel of the Shrine of St.… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
August 23, 2012|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

Beyond the verdant crops flourishing in this summer's 100-degree heat and regular rainstorms, a guesthouse from long ago sits near the northeastern edge of the 236-acre property that is home to the Shrine of St. Anthony in western Ellicott City.

Carriages once traversed this portion of the scenic land — now bisected by L-shaped Folly Quarter Road and leased out as farmland to the University of Maryland by the Conventual Franciscan Friars — to deliver guests to lively summertime parties at the estate known as Folly Quarter.

"You can almost imagine them arriving," said Joseph White, assistant director of the shrine, as he surveyed the agricultural panorama that supplants the front lawn of the residence, now called Manor House. "These were big-ballroom, party-hour, let's-get-out-of-the-heat balls."

Built in 1832 by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence, as a wedding gift to his granddaughter Emily MacTavish, Manor House is the first stop on the free two-hour historical tours of the friars' property offered from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month (except December); the tours are free.

Roger Whelan, a former federal bankruptcy judge who leads the tours, said the goal is to inform people of the property's significant history while also attracting attention to the benefits of the shrine, "which has a lot to offer beyond its religious significance."

"Many people who come on the tour to see the shrine are not aware of the property's history," Whelan said. "For instance, there's a tunnel in the basement of the Manor House that was part of the Underground Railroad," the network of secret routes and temporary havens arranged in the 1800s for escaped slaves seeking freedom in the North.

The Shrine of St. Anthony — with its marble facade, multiple archways and red tile roof — is a smaller-scale replica of Sacro Convento, the friary in Italy where St. Francis of Assisi is buried, he said.

"So many people have found so much peace here that we've opened the grounds to the public," said Brother Daniel Geary, who's in charge of the postulants, young men who are trying to determine whether the life of a Franciscan friar is for them.

The property is home to six friars and five postulants, he said. Those postulants who choose to remain will become novices and begin a year of training to prepare for their vows.

Visitors are also encouraged to attend the noon Mass that is offered in the chapel seven days a week and to use the miles of hiking and meditation trails that surround the property, Geary said.

What appears today to be the rear of Manor House, a neoclassical home built of 19-inch-thick Woodstock granite — and which is about four miles southwest of Doughoregan Manor, the Carroll family's estate — was actually its grand main entrance, where high-society guests climbed a dozen steps to enter its glorious halls.

"Folly" is a Colonial term for "a hilly residence shaded by many trees," according to the shrine's website, and 1,000 acres had been "quartered" or sectioned off from the 10,000-acre Doughoregan Manor for the purpose, thus giving the estate and the road their shared name.

The manor house was designed by William Small, a protege of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol. A private chapel was situated where the Shrine of St. Anthony now stands.

The friars purchased the property for $436,000 in 1928 from Van Lear Black, chairman of the board of the A.S. Abell Co., which published The Baltimore Sun at the time. Black had owned the property since 1910 and had restored it after it had fallen into neglect.

"Van Lear Black brought in the Barnum & Bailey Circus [to entertain his guests] and held Roaring '20s/Great Gatsby-style parties, which President Warren G. Harding and other important people attended," White said. "It was also said that [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] experienced his first symptoms of polio while aboard Black's boat in the Chesapeake Bay."

The Friars built the Shrine of St. Anthony in 1931. Photographs show the father general, who is the Roman head of the order, blessing the property with Archbishop Michael Curley, Geary said.

The friars gradually began opening their property to the public about 20 years ago, starting with days of prayer and an occasional festival, White said. Secular groups hold meetings and Scout camps there. Workshops are offered in icon painting and keeping a journal, and lectures are given on such topics as the Civil War.

"People saw Assisi as a city on a hill and came there. But people are coming here as well, some without any major religious convictions," Geary said. "People often tell us they are wrapped in a blanket of peace when they set foot on the property."

White said, "We've always had pilgrims who want to know about the building, its symbolism and art. Slowly, organically, it's all been coming together."

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