Searching for a Lost Chapel in Maryland

The current chapel of St. Francis Xavier dates to 1731

St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne, Maryland is among the oldest Catholic churches America. The current chapel dates to 1731, but that wasn’t the first chapel. Jesuits began their work in Newtowne Neck in 1640, and in honor of the church’s 350th anniversary, Fr. Brian Sanderfoot wants to find the remains of the original chapel, which was forced to close in 1704 during a wave of anti-Catholic persecution. Last, year, the church commissioned a survey of the original graveyard (PDF) and a search for the original chapel (PDF).

Now, they believe they may be getting closer to the location of the original chapel.

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.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Ben

    Appreciate any stories related to Southern Maryland Catholic History. My Uncle was married in that Church (my parents still live there). The Church in St. Mary’s city was recently rebuilt a few years ago and is quite pretty too. Ever make it down to SoMar?

  • Dismas

    I love these stories and updates too. My parents were married in this Church and my god father, may he rest in peace, is buried in this cemetary. The fondest memories of my childhood involve this Church and the surrounding area. I haven’t been back for so long, I need to go. Please God, that it hasn’t changed much.

  • paul

    Regarding stained glass and the lead that surrounded them, even if broken and semi-dissolved, are there not metal detectors now with video images that can be rented that reveal more detail of whether something is a lead twist or a wrought nail? Perhaps this could be rented or an owner be hired to look over an area more superficially, better allocating dig times? Are there any forensic Catholics out there that could test out their equipment.

    Did any Jesuit priests die while at this chapel – would thing they would be buried nearby and with larger metal crucifixes to detect or their ring?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I imagine they probably used some standard techniques (ground-penetration and metal detection) in the original survey.