Rebuilding St. Mary's City

Maryland’s first state capital rises once again

Workers are rebuilding the 17th-century Jesuit Chapel atop the original foundations.

Credit: Courtesy of Historic St. Mary’s City

When Maryland celebrates its 375th birthday this summer, historians will mark the occasion in the state's oldest city—not Baltimore or Annapolis, but St. Mary's. Never heard of this historic gem on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay? You're not alone. Unlike Annapolis, which has served as the capital since 1695, St. Mary's enjoyed only 61 years as the seat of power, beginning in 1634. Abandoned for centuries, the original core of this colonial city was reborn in the 1960s as a living-history museum, and with more than five million artifacts in its archaeological collection, the National Historic Landmark now inspires visitors with a vibrant portrait of 17th-century colonial life.

No buildings or maps survive from the original city, but workers have painstakingly re-created 12 structures—including a print house—using historical and archaeological evidence. Last fall, after an extensive archaeological dig, a museum opened at St. John's Freehold, where Maryland's first provincial secretary once lived. And workers are now finishing the latest project, a ­re-creation of a c. 1667 brick Jesuit chapel, to celebrate Maryland's birthday. When it was built, the chapel was the only freestanding Catholic church in the English-speaking world.

"It really was a physical symbol of the freedom of religion that Maryland offered," says Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City Commission, the state agency that manages the site. "We think there is great resonance that this important and symbolically significant building is being finished this year."

Reconstruction took seven years, with workers using traditional building materials (oyster-shell-and-sand mortar) as well as period windlasses and scaffolding made of ropes and pine poles.

Jimmy Price, founder of Virginia Lime Works, led the team of workers. "The brick carvers and stone carvers," Price says, "were using their mallets and chisels, creating a steady rhythm of whack whack whack, and then to hear the squeak of the windlasses hoisting materials—I said to myself, 'This is pretty cool. Nowhere else can you hear these 17th-century sounds.'"

Already, another project is in the works: reconstructing the home of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert. "There are," says Miller, "decades of research and discovery still to come."

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