Maryland celebrates its 375th birthday this year, many people are
unaware of the circumstances and hardships that brought the first
settlers to our shores so many years ago.
Though many were simply seeking a better life, others were trying to
escape religious persecution in their homeland. The first English
settlers braved treacherous waters aboard the Ark and Dove in hopes of
finding a place where they could succeed financially as well as practice
their faith openly and freely. In 1634, what we now know as St. Mary's
City became not only the capital of the fledgling colony, but also a
place where religious tolerance would be celebrated and encouraged.
Jesuit priests, including Father Andrew White, quickly acquired land in
St. Mary's City to build a wooden Roman Catholic chapel. But it wasn't
long before the same religious strife, which had caused early Catholics
to flee England, would find its way to the new colony and the church was
subsequently burned in 1645. For many years, Catholics were forced to
worship secretly throughout the colony, but by the late 1660s, religious
freedom was once again restored under King Charles II and a new brick
chapel was constructed on the site where the previous chapel once stood.
The chapel served the faithful of St. Mary's City until it was ordered
locked by a royal governor in 1704. It was never again used as a place
of worship and was instead torn down, with some of the materials
removed, and used to construct a manor house at a mission located in St.
By the late 1600s, the capital had been relocated to Annapolis and the
chapel land was sold. Over the next several hundred years, the land
would become fertile farmland again, leaving little evidence of the
historically significant original colony.
In 1934, Maryland celebrated its 300th anniversary, which sparked
renewed interest in the history of the area occupied by Maryland's first
European settlers. The State House was reconstructed during this time
and evidence of the chapel was discovered in 1938 by H. Chandlee Forman,
an architect, historian and archaeologist. Dr. Forman, once the chief
architect of the National Park Service, made several important historic
architectural discoveries during the 1930s in both Jamestown, Va., and
St. Mary's City, Md.
What he found in St. Mary's City was the foundation of the 1660s chapel,
which was built in the outline of the Roman cross. He also discovered
evidence of burials within the foundation of the church. Although his
discovery was quite exciting, it would take nearly 30 years for more
research to be conducted on this historically significant location.
Until 1981, the property that the chapel had once occupied was privately
owned. By 1984, when Maryland celebrated its 350th anniversary, the land
had been purchased by the state with the hopes of establishing a museum
where the chapel had once stood. Community interest in the site had
grown in the early 1980s and a campaign began to raise funds, led by
locals Fred and Beth McCoy, allowing monies for an archaeological survey
of the chapel field. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the help of
grants, excavation of the site would begin in earnest, the goal being to
one day reconstruct the chapel. In 1990, the exciting discovery of three
lead coffins was made.
Growing enthusiasm for the reconstruction project resulted in the
formation of the Historic St. Mary's City Foundation's Chapel Campaign
in 1997, which raised nearly $500,000 in grant money to begin the
reconstruction process. With little documented evidence of what the
original chapel had looked like, researchers began the arduous task of
trying to create a historically accurate structure.
Painstaking excavation of the site would yield clues, such as the
substantial three-foot-wide foundations, "molded" bricks, bits of
plaster and small shards of glass, but there was little more to go on.
Specialists from around the world were consulted to look at chapels from
the same time period, constructed in the same Latin cross design. An
architectural firm, specializing in restoration and reconstruction
projects, was hired to provide specific design and engineering services
while also providing historical background as to what materials would be
needed for the project.
Under the direction of Dr. Henry M. Miller, Historic St. Mary's City's
director of research, architects John Mesick and Jeff Baker, and chief
archaeologist Tim Riordan, every effort was made to reconstruct the
chapel using authentic materials and traditional building practices. In
order to honor those old materials and methods, high-tech means had to
sometimes be employed. Brick and mortar composition had to be just
right, so chemical analysis of clay in the area was performed by Dr.
Ruth Ann Armitage, to ensure the bricks would be as close to the
original brick as possible. On September 24, 2002, the first brick was
laid by restoration mason Jimmy Price.
Reconstruction directly on top of the original foundation would prove
tedious as much of the construction was dependent upon weather
conditions. Over time, the chapel began to take shape. Elements true to
Jesuit chapels of its time such as tall proportions, classically styled
pilasters and a raised parapet (a wall or barrier projecting above the
roofline) on the front fašade were all incorporated. These elements,
both stylized and functional, were found on Jesuit structures of the
17th century throughout the world, including the Far East, Europe and
South America. Such attention to detail by people involved in the
project ensures that the finished chapel is as close to what was
believed to have existed in the Chapel of 1667 as possible.
The interior of the chapel would also be a study in historical
structures of that period. A wooden-barrel vaulted ceiling, plaster
walls and stone floors are representative of the times. Miller has been
working on the reconstruction of the tabernacle, one of the only
remaining intact items from the original chapel. Made of juniper,
mahogany and magnolia, the ornately carved original tabernacle (box or
case used during the 17th century to hold the blessed sacraments on an
altar) was believed to have been donated by the Carroll family to the
Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore in 1859. With the help of the Sisters of
Mercy and researchers, a reproduction will be placed in the completed
Another original item found is a 7 1/2- by -10-inch altar stone. The
stone returned to St. Cecilia's Church in St. Mary's City by WMCRP
Architects in Landover, Md. - the firm that designed St. Cecilia's. The
firm found the stone while cleaning a closet and returned it to the
The crowning touch on the newly constructed chapel is a four-foot iron
cross. Local historian, blacksmith and museum docent Pete Himmelheber
was asked to construct a wrought-iron replica of one believed to have
been brought over on the Ark and Dove in 1634.
Today, the chapel appears as it might have long ago. A few modern
conveniences were added such as hydronic heat, electricity and
weatherproofing to ensure its longevity, and a cross, which also serves
as a lightning rod. But those who once worshipped freely and openly in
the Brick Chapel of 1667 would be proud of the love, passion and
dedication that went into recreating such an important part of
Maryland's history - knowing that their legacy lives on.
For more information on the Brick Chapel of 1667, visit