In the photo above, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who helped push open the doors of the newly unlocked chapel, speaks during the ceremony. At left is Dr. Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City, and behind the archbishop is St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron, who unlocked the doors of the rebuilt chapel. The chapel stands again as a sign of religious freedom. Below, Men and women wearing  colonial garb help lead a procession to the reconstructed brick chapel in St. Mary's City. The rebuilt chapel was built on the foundation of a Catholic chapel that had been built in 1667 and locked by order of the royal governor in 1704. In a Sept. 20 ceremony, the reconstructed chapel was unlocked.
In the photo above, Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who helped push open the doors of the newly unlocked chapel, speaks during the ceremony. At left is Dr. Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City, and behind the archbishop is St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron, who unlocked the doors of the rebuilt chapel. The chapel stands again as a sign of religious freedom. Below, Men and women wearing colonial garb help lead a procession to the reconstructed brick chapel in St. Mary's City. The rebuilt chapel was built on the foundation of a Catholic chapel that had been built in 1667 and locked by order of the royal governor in 1704. In a Sept. 20 ceremony, the reconstructed chapel was unlocked.
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Maryland's status as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States became tangible on Sept. 20, as an estimated 1,000 people witnessed the unlocking of a reconstructed brick chapel in St. Mary's City.

The original Catholic chapel on the site had been built in 1667, with the majestic brick structure near Maryland's first capital in St. Mary's City serving as a symbol of the religious freedom that had been a cornerstone of Maryland since the first English colonists landed in 1634 on nearby St. Clement's Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies. Lord Baltimore based Maryland's government on the principles of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. The Catholic chapel was built on the opposite side of St. Mary's City from the State House.

But in 1704, following an order from the royal governor, Sheriff John Coode locked the doors to that chapel in St. Mary's City, which was later dismantled, brick by brick. Catholics at the time could no longer worship in public in a colony that had been founded on the principle of religious freedom.

In a dramatic ceremony on Sept. 20, current St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron unlocked the massive oak and pine doors of the reconstructed chapel, using a key believed to be a replica of the one that his predecessor had used 305 years earlier to lock the original chapel's doors.

Before the ceremony, Sheriff Cameron said he was excited to participate in the reopening of the chapel, which was rebuilt on the foundation of the original structure. "I'll be unlocking that door and reaffirming the idea of freedom of conscience," said the 133rd sheriff of St. Mary's County. "...It's absolutely one of the best things I've been able to do."
Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, joined by Jesuit Father Edward Dougherty representing the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, had helped lead a procession to the chapel from a nearby barn, led by a group of men and women dressed in colonial garb. A Knights of Columbus honor guard walked near the front of the procession.

One of the re-enactors beat a large drum as the sheriff turned the key, and another shot off his musket in celebration, as Archbishop Wuerl and Father Dougherty pushed the chapel's doors open. People shouted three cheers and applauded.

Then the people who had joined the procession to the chapel crowded inside. About 10 priests, most from Southern Maryland parishes, walked inside the chapel, and the crowd spontaneously began singing the hymn, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." The priests processed to the chapel's altar space and then turned to bless all those present.

"When you walk in the doors, this vast space draws your eyes upward to the heavens, and that's intentional," said Dr. Henry Miller, the director of research for Historic St. Mary's City. He praised the work of the artisans who had reconstructed the chapel, including the brickmasons whose bricks had been made from clay from the surrounding countryside.

Moments later, Archbishop Wuerl said that when he helped push open the doors, "It was a reminder of how we have to keep the doors of our hearts open, first to God, and then to one another. That's what freedom of conscience and freedom of religion is all about."

In his closing remarks during the ceremony, Archbishop Wuerl said, "Just as God was with our forefathers who founded what became Maryland... so God is with us today... God is still with us, and we are still a free people with a free conscience."

As she waited for the procession to begin, Sister Marilyn Hopewell, a members of the Sisters for Christian Community who grew up in Ridge, spoke of the legacy of faith in Southern Maryland. "We knew what we had. We had the Jesuit priests. We knew God was here for us, no matter how poor we were," she said.

Nearby, Nancy Hislop, whose ancestors came to Maryland in the 1660s, said, "Our Constitution and Bill of Rights were based on this concept (of religious liberty) that started here in Maryland. We should be proud of that."

Msgr. Karl Chimiak, the pastor of St. George Parish in Valley Lee, said he was proud to follow in the footsteps of the Jesuit priests who served Southern Maryland for generations. "Brick by brick, stone by stone, you see how the Lord rebuilds His church," he said.

Father William Gurnee, the pastor of Holy Angels in Avenue which is located a short distance from St. Clement's Island, said, "We unlock the past and throw open the doors to Christ." He said people in Southern Maryland have deep respect for the region's history. "The people here know where they came from, and it's very important to preserve it."

Scholars used historical detective work in designing the reconstructed chapel, basing its look on Jesuit chapels from that time period. In 2004, historians, architects, builders and archaeologists came up with a plan for the chapel. From the foundation, they knew it was about 54 feet long and clues led them to believe it was about 25 feet tall. Members of the community have raised $3.2 million for the project.

"It was a matter of faith, not only faith in God, but faith that we could do it," said Jeanne Chandler, the past president of the Historic St. Mary's City Foundation, who praised the work of the volunteers and the generosity of the community in supporting the chapel project.

At the ceremony, Dr. Miller said, "This site is so fundamental to America and the freedoms we share."

Father Dougherty, the pastor of St. Ignatius in Chapel Point, the last remaining Jesuit parish in Southern Maryland, said the first time he saw the reconstructed chapel being built in St. Mary's City, "It brought tears to my eyes... You know, we are on holy ground," he said, noting that hundreds of the state's early Catholics are buried in the ground surrounding the chapel. "We are grateful to them, and we will remember and thank God for all our ancestors," he said.

In the 1980s, a group of citizens led by local Catholics Fred and Beth McCoy raised funds for an archaeological survey of the chapel field, which had been used as farmland for generations after the original chapel was dismantled.

"My father used to say, the faith of our fathers, it was a sacred trust," said Muffin McCoy Padukiewicz, the community relations coordinator for Historic St. Mary's City. "This is a realization of their dream."

Blacksmith Peter Himmelheber fashioned the wrought iron cross atop the chapel from a tobacco press, and made the metal door latch from the iron tire of an Amish buggy. He said he was ecstatic, and relieved, when the chapel's doors swung open.

The chapel will be open to the public during museum hours, and planners hope to open an interpretive pavilion next summer.

Silas Hurry, the archaeological laboratory director for Historic St. Mary's City, said, "I'm thrilled we've come this far, and looking so much forward to us completing the project. It will allow us to tell one of the most important stories of St. Mary's City, and of Maryland."