Archaeology team following clues to 1662 chapel

A team of archaeologists and volunteers is close to locating a 1662 chapel at Newtowne Neck in Compton.

Scott Lawrence of Grave Concerns and James Gibb of Gibb Archaeology Consulting were hired by St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus to look for the original chapel. The two have completed an archaeological survey of the church’s original cemetery. St. Francis Xavier is celebrating the 350th anniversary of the original church chapel this year.

“We’ve started to find an abundance of archaeological material,” the Rev. Brian Sanderfoot, pastor of St. Francis Xavier, said. “We’re happy and confident we’re narrowing in on the location.”

The current chapel dates to 1731, but the Jesuits started a mission in Newtowne Neck in 1640, Gibb wrote in an assessment, well before the county seat of Leonardtown was established in 1708.

The archaeology team focused on the church’s cemetery, which is about a half-mile north of the current chapel. The cemetery’s location indicated that’s where the original church once stood.

There are many more graves there than the existing headstones would indicate, the excavation has determined. As the team searched for evidence of the chapel, numerous burial sites were discovered.

As teams exposed 5-foot-by-5-foot sections of earth down to about 6 inches, rectangular layers of clay were found. The rest of the Colonial-era soil is dark brown.

As graves were dug, the clay below was disturbed and mixed in with the disturbed soil, Gibb said. The clay is thicker and a lighter brown.

Lawrence and Gibb were looking for post holes, which indicate a building previously stood there. A post hole would contain disturbed clay and have an area of dark, decomposed material in the center, Lawrence said.

Digging began March 30 and continued through the weekend.

On April 1, the team found broken glass and wrought nails. In addition, “we might have a structural post hole,” Lawrence said April 2.

Pieces of glass showed where the lead panes intersected and, based on that, the team thinks the 1662 chapel had diamond-shaped window panes, Lawrence said.

It was the second weekend of archaeological work this year, but there isn’t funding at the moment for more, he said.

“It doesn’t want to be left alone for another 300 years,” Gibb said March 30 of the original chapel as he smoothed out a section of soil.

The search for the chapel was a process of elimination. Squares were opened up to look for post holes.

If a section looks promising, a new section is opened up adjacent to it, and so on.

“We’re close,” Lawrence said March 30 as he worked. He compared the process to “a game of Battleship,” in which players uncover squares to look for various ships.

The windows and nails were found about 10 feet north of where they were looking on March 30.

The team doesn’t know how large the chapel was. The Jesuits kept detailed records in the 1680s and on, but not during the 1660s or 1670s, said Ruth Mitchell, archaeologist for Historic St. Mary’s City, who volunteered for this effort. The county sheriff had a record of which chapels were closing in St. Mary’s, but did not detail the sizes of the buildings, Sanderfoot said.

The 1662 chapel was shuttered in 1704 when Catholics were punished in the Maryland colony as Protestants resumed power back in England. The chapel fell into disuse and was torn down in 1719.

The current church was built in 1731 and has been added onto and renovated.

Parishioners today drive to St. Francis Xavier near the end of Newtowne Neck Road.

Parishioners at the original chapel would have arrived by boat on the water by the creek next to the cemetery, Lawrence said. That creek now is silted in and became wetlands.

There are about 250 families attending St. Francis Xavier today, Sanderfoot said. In the late 1600s, there were about a dozen Catholic families in the Newtowne Neck area.

The cemetery became overgrown with vegetation on at least two occasions. Sometime in the 1950s, some headstones were knocked down during clearing, Sanderfoot said. More headstones were knocked over in 1989 and dumped in a pile by the wetlands.

 
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