Brick by Brick, History Re-Created
With Research and a Bit of Guesswork, a St. Mary's Chapel Rises Again

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.

In 1694, Colonial governor Francis Nicholson called for moving the state capital to the Protestant stronghold of Annapolis. Soon, Catholic worship was banned, and the brick chapel was ordered shuttered in 1704.

The Jesuits later dismantled the building, pieces of which were used to build St. Inigoes Manor House chapel, five miles away.

"It would have been better if it blew up or burned down, instead of being recycled," Miller said. "At least then we would have more clues."

The largest of the clues was the foundation, uncovered by Forman in 1938. Archaeologists had expected to find a structure similar to that of period churches in Virginia: a shallow rectangular base for a small building.

"It was with genuine surprise that in the excavations of the foundation this year, we found a great Latin cross made of brick walls three feet thick and four feet high," Forman wrote in 1938.

The foundation was reburied until the early 1980s, when the state purchased the field for the museum and uncovered the ruins in 1984 for the 350th anniversary of Maryland's founding. When excavations began in 1988, historians studied other brick Colonial-era churches and calculated that a chapel with a five-foot-deep foundation would have had walls at least 23 feet high.

Other clues came from sifting through the dirt nearby.

From shards of glass, archaeologists deduced that the chapel's windows were made of diamond-shaped panes and that the glass was not stained. From rock, geologists concluded that some material used in construction, probably for the floor, originated in the Old World.

Remnants of two types of brick and traces of plaster on bits of finished wood suggested that the ceiling was timber-clad and that the brick walls were plastered inside and painted to look like stone outside.

Experts estimated the pitch of the roof based on pieces of roof tile, which were flat instead of curved. The roof, they figured, must have been steep enough that rain would run off quickly and not leak through .

Historians have found four written references to the chapel: a record of a court case about a vandal who broke a chapel window, a bill for removing stones from the chapel floor to bury someone, a will granting money to the chapel and the mention in the writings of Nicholson.

Other clues turned up in the state, such as a tabernacle (with the gilded crest of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, on its door) donated by the Carroll family to the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore in 1859. According to family legend, the Carrolls kept the tabernacle, a wooden cabinet designed to hold the Holy Eucharist, after the St. Mary's City chapel was destroyed.

A marble slab that might have been part of the altar was found several years ago in a closet at an architectural firm that worked at another St. Mary's church 30 years earlier. Faint writing on the back, a scribble of unknown origin, says the piece was once used at the St. Inigoes Manor House and "possibly used in the chapel at St. Mary's City."

For the most part, the clues stopped. Other details needed to construct a chapel -- brickwork patterns, mortar recipes, the facade, carvings, statues, the cross on the steeple, the pediment above the arched doorway -- were pieced together by studying Jesuit churches in China, Macao, South America and the Philippines.

Construction began in September 2002, after structural engineers concluded that the foundation was sound enough to hold a chapel. Masons and volunteers worked until the weather got cold, when the oyster shell mortar would no longer properly set, and began again the next spring. Each year, the walls grew a little taller, and in the fall, the final clay roof tile was placed.

The crews have been using only tools and supplies that Jesuits might have had in the 1660s, such as wooden scaffolding and a hand-crank lift. They did cheat a little, renting a crane to install the ceiling and roof.

When the chapel is complete, it could create some controversy, Mesick said, especially because the brick will be painted with a red wash to cover imperfections, as he says the Jesuits did. True to history isn't always true to imagination or building trends.

"It'll be a shocker to everyone. They'll say, 'Why did you paint over that beautiful brick?' " Mesick said.

As the chapel walls grew, clues started fitting into place: The support poles for the wooden scaffolding lined up with post-size holes uncovered by archaeologists, and placement of the windows matched the spot where broken glass was found, Miller said.

On a snowy morning last month, he unlocked the chapel's front door and stepped inside. Sunlight poured through the open door and the cracks in the boards covering the windows.

Miller took in the greatness of the ceiling's height and the vastness of the space. He marveled at the simplicity of the rebuilt chapel, and at the sufficiency of natural light.

"It was a great mystery," he said, "come to a reasoned conclusion."

Staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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