Recreated Chapel Unlocked in St. Mary’s City

College students and St. Mary’s residents gather to watch the unlocking of the recreated historic Roman Catholic chapel in St. Mary’s City. (Photos By Brendan O’Hara)
College students and St. Mary’s residents gather to watch the unlocking of the recreated historic Roman Catholic chapel in St. Mary’s City. (Photos By Brendan O’Hara)

On Sunday, Sept. 20, the recreated Roman Catholic brick chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City was ceremonially opened to the public. Governor Seymour locked the chapel in 1704, intending that it never again be used as a place of worship.

St. Mary’s City, founded by the Calvert family, was valued as an experiment in religious toleration. “Religion determined who you were, who you married, who your friends were, your chances of political freedom and economic success, your very existence,” said Silas D. Hurry, Historic St. Mary’s City’s Curator of Collections and Archeology Laboratory Director.

According to Douglas Horhorta, a site manager for Historic St. Mary’s City, the doors of the Catholic Church were closed in 1704 to ensure that the colonists’ offerings did not go to the Catholic Church. “A lot of it’s about money,” he said. Calvert’s experiment in religious toleration had ended.

Excavations beginning in 1988 revealed the foundation of the brick chapel. “The foundation was massive by 17th century Chesapeake standards,” said Hurry.
The width and depth of the foundation suggested the building was about 23 feet tall at the eaves. Further excavation uncovered shards of glass, flat roof tiles, traces of plaster, and special stucco-like bricks. Archeologists then turned to other examples of chapels in order to determine a pattern for their design and construction, but this proved to be difficult.

“Given the ever tenuous position of Roman Catholics in England, it seems likely that there was an attempt to leave as little paper trail as possible,” said Hurry.
There is but one modern description of the chapel, and there are no surviving Catholic churches built in 17th century England. According to Hurry, much of the actual archeology to understand the building is the fruit of SMCM students in the archeological field school program.

After the ceremony, artifacts from the chapel excavations were on display and light refreshments were served.

The chapel will be open to the public during museum hours, and an interpretive pavilion is expected to be open to the public in summer 2010.

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