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Anne Arundel 100

21st-century Sheriff Unlocks Chapel after 295 Years

Written by Barbara Geehan

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Just visualize it: It is 1704, long before American colonists shrugged off the shackles of English domination. The local sheriff and his deputies, under orders from the English-appointed Maryland governor John Seymour after the State Assembly passed an "Act Against Popery," locked the arched wooden doors of the Catholic brick chapel at St. Mary's City. He also was to keep the key and the chapel was never to be opened again. It was demolished soon after, having been used as a church for only 37 years.

Fast forward to 2009: This coming September 20, St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron will ceremoniously unlock a faithfully rebuilt brick chapel on the site of the original one, symbolically reopening the building 295 years after it was locked forever.

Originally, a wooden chapel sat at the site near what is now the intersection of Route 5 and Rosecroft  Road; it may have been burned down during a rebellion in 1645. Then, in the 1660s, Catholics felt confident enough to build the brick chapel. The freestanding Catholic chapel would have been illegal in every other English-speaking land at the time, according to experts at Historic St. Mary's City.

"Despite its brief life, the chapel's builders intended that it be permanent, having constructed an exceptionally solid structure," the experts wrote in a 2004 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine. The foundations alone were three feet thick and extended five feet into the ground.

Archaeologists began excavating the site in 1983, and used clues from recovered bricks, flat roof tiles, fragments of diamond-shaped window panes, and plaster fragments to design the chapel. Hundreds of burial sites have been found, including the lead coffins that held Philip Calvert, governor, and his wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert.

While the chapel is a reconstruction, building it was an experiment in learning how to build a 17th-century brick church, according to Tim Riordan, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City. "The materials and techniques were of the type used on the original, the most obvious being the scaffolding," he says. "Instead of using metal scaffolding, carpenters used logs, planks and rope to support the masons. Because this needed to be supported by the rising structure itself, ‘putlog' holes occur in the walls, just as in older brick buildings." The inspiration for the final shape of the chapel comes first and foremost from the archaeological work. However, because the building was intentionally torn down, much of the evidence was lost. To aid in understanding the structure, extensive research was conducted on 17th-century Jesuit churches around the world. Elements of those designs, as well as other buildings in Maryland, were used to plan the chapel.

 "Taking all these design elements and combining them into a final pattern yields a very striking building," says Riordan. "The internal plan has a stone-paved nave, a raised altar area and an offset pulpit. The longitudinal section shows the relationship between the altar, the pulpit, and the nave. Moving to the most formal west facade we see the elaboration of the door surround and quoining created by outset brick and rendering. And sailing above are pyramidal spires, rendered white to appear as stone."

 The bricks themselves were made from clay excavated near the site and wood-fired in a kiln. The mortar between the bricks, using clues found in artifacts, was a type common in 17th-century tidewater Maryland and similar to that used in Rome centuries ago. You would think it would be easy to find the main ingredient, lime derived from oyster shells, around here, but state law requires most shells be returned to the water. However, more than 1,000 bushels - from Virginia - were finally delivered.

Though made of traditional materials and methods, the rebuilt chapel includes modern-day electricity. The chapel will contain two exhibits. The lead coffins will be displayed through a glass floor in their original positions and a portion of the original five-foot deep foundation of the chapel will be displayed in another place.

After the special unlocking ceremony in the fall, the chapel will be partially open during museum hours as construction allows.