Brick by Brick, History Re-Created

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

A foundation in the shape of a Latin cross lay buried for three centuries in a Southern Maryland field, an archaeological puzzle piece believed to have been the base of a Catholic church dismantled soon after it was built.

Scattered clues supported the idea of a lost church: fragments of plaster and glass unearthed nearby, a wooden tabernacle traced to a prominent family of Catholic settlers and mention of a "good brick Chappell" in the writings of one of the state's Colonial governors.

"So, we know it's good, we know it's brick, we know it's a chapel," said Henry M. Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City. "That's it."

Historic St. Mary's City, an outdoor museum on the site of what was Maryland's first Colonial capital, is using those few clues, along with plenty of research and what Miller calls "scholarly best guesses," to rebuild the chapel as it was constructed circa 1667, an estimate that continues to change.

The once-buried foundation again supports walls of brick from local clay, bound by lime-based mortar made from more than 2,000 bushels of oyster shells. Flat clay tiles from England line the wooden, barrel-vault roof.

The windows, entrance and interior are expected to be completed in the coming years with the help of a federal grant of $400,000, awarded last month. Although the chapel will not be consecrated or used as a place of worship, it is meant to be a close approximation of the original.

The project has cost more than $2 million, funded by grants and private donations to the nonprofit Historic St. Mary's City Foundation. The museum is governed by the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, a panel of local historians and professionals appointed by the governor. Benjamin C. Bradlee, vice president at large of The Washington Post, is the commission's chairman emeritus.

The reconstructed church is intended as a monument to when Maryland led the Colonies in religious tolerance. When the chapel was built, Protestants and Catholics worshiped freely in Maryland -- a rarity in European societies torn by religious rivalries.

"It was an age of religious friction, of Protestant against Catholic, or all against Quaker," the late archaeologist H. Chandlee Forman wrote in his 1938 book about the first excavations of the historic city. "The founders of St. Mary's were the true religious 'Pilgrims' in an age of almost universal intolerance."

The group of about 140 settlers, including several Jesuit priests, arrived in Southern Maryland in 1634 aboard the Ark and Dove vessels.

The Jesuits acquired a parcel, which they named the Chapel Land, and built a wooden chapel that historians say is the founding place of the Roman Catholic Church in British America. That church was destroyed during an attack in 1645 by anti-Catholic and anti-royalist forces. When the Catholic Calvert family again took charge of the colony in 1660, it is assumed the chapel was rebuilt in brick, according to Historic St. Mary's City historians.

"It was really an incredible undertaking for the Jesuits, given that there's no precedent" for such a massive brick structure in Maryland, said John I. Mesick of Mesick-Cohen-Wilson-Baker Architects of Albany, N.Y., which specializes in restoring historical buildings.

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