Our Lady of the Angels chapel a timeless beauty at 100

Once the centerpiece of St. Charles College, now hub at Charlestown retirement community

(Jen Rynda, Patuxent Homestead )
December 13, 2013|By Bob Allen

When Our Lady of the Angels Chapel was built and dedicated in the early 20th century, it was surrounded by the rolling hills and open countryside of a farm that served as a retreat for the members of the Catholic order of the Sulpician Fathers. 

For years, the chapel was the centerpiece of St. Charles College, a Catholic Seminary that operated at the site on Maiden Choice Lane from 1911 until 1977.

Through the years, the chapel, with its vaulted Italian marble walls, 68-foot-tall dome and ornate stone, buff brick, limestone and terra cotta construction has stood as an exquisite example of Italian Renaissance architecture.

Since 1983, it has served as the cultural hub and spiritual sanctuary for the sprawling 110-acre campus of the Charlestown retirement community, which has grown up around it in the past three decades.

A century on, Our Lady of the Angels is as lovely, awe-inspiring and vital as ever.

Earlier this fall, several special weekend Masses were held to mark the centennial of the ceremonial laying of the chapel's cornerstone by Cardinal James Gibbons, of Baltimore, on St. Charles Day, Nov. 4, 1913.

And it still has the power to inspire, and even change lives.

Just ask the Rev. Leo Larrivee, who has served as parish pastor for the past two decades. He is also a graduate of the St. Charles Seminary, which operated at that location for so many years.

"The first time I walked into this chapel was in 1969 when I was a student here at the seminary," he said. "I'll always remember it. It was a dark, gloomy day and I was so depressed, because I felt like I'd made the biggest mistake of my life, entering the seminary.

"That was until the exact moment I walked into that chapel," he said "That's when I calmed down and thought, 'It's going to be okay.' "

Larrivee has written extensively about the chapel's history. He points out that additional features and adornments have been added throughout the past century, right up to the present time.

The chapel's marble interior, completed in the early 1920s, is considered by architectural historians to be second only to the U.S. Library of Congress in terms of the precision with which its components were matched and finished.

The stained glass windows, installed in the 1940s, were the last major work of the celebrated stained glass artist Charles J. Connick, who worked out of Boston and died in 1945. Connick developed the theme for these windows, which depicts the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The chapel itself is still owned by Sulpician Fathers and is open to the public.

Besides ongoing worship services, its state-of-the art lighting and acoustics provide a venue for an ongoing concert series that has included performances by groups ranging from the U.S. Army Field Band to the Handel Choir of Baltimore.

"Since Charlestown opened in 1983, there's been a lot of major, major additions to the interior, all of which were paid for by donations from Charlestown residents, who really have contributed some big bucks," Larrivee said. "The organ was completely rebuilt, a new lighting system was installed, and a dozen or so statues have also been added to the chapel."

This spirit of generosity is very much in keeping with the chapel's founding and tradition. Its construction in the early 1900s was made possible by donations from Robert and Elizabeth Jenkins, members of a prominent Baltimore family that had prospered in banking, silver-smithing and similar enterprises. Several members of the family are buried in the chapel's crypt.

As Larrivee explains, Robert and Elizabeth Jenkins traveled extensively in Europe, where they visited many historic cathedrals and chapels. Later, the couple had considerable input into the design of Our Lady of the Angels and were deeply inspired by the magnificent structures they'd seen in France and Italy.

In keeping with the Jenkins' original vision, all the marble used in the chapel's construction. and in more contemporary enhancements and renovations, is Italian. All the statues were sculpted in Italy.

"There's still a ton of the Jenkinses around," Larrivee said. "Over the years, we've even had some members of the Jenkins family living here at Charlestown."

A list of upcoming concerts at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel is available at http://www.charlestownperformingarts.com.

A schedule of worship services can be found at http://www.archbalt.org/about-us/parishes/ourladyoftheangels.

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