Crumbling stairs that lead nowhere. The decayed remains of an eerie cellar. The haggard spines of a once-proud pavilion now choked with encroaching vegetation. That’s what is left of St. Mary’s College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Ilchester, near Ellicott City.

Opened in 1868 atop a granite cliff overlooking the Patapsco River, St. Mary’s boasted a five-story Italian Renaissance-style building with classrooms and bedrooms, a chapel with a gabled roof and stained glass windows, and terraced grounds laced with 14 pavilions illustrating the Stations of the Cross. The school’s library displayed such relics as fossils, old coins and religious manuscripts.

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A long concrete staircase once led to the campus of St. Mary's College in Ilchester. The college was closed in 1972 and fires destroyed the buildings in 1996.
A long concrete staircase once led to the campus of St. Mary's College in Ilchester. The college was closed in 1972 and fires destroyed the buildings in 1996. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Built by the Redemptorist order on 110 acres once owned by George Ellicott, the college grew from 19 students to nearly 150 at its peak in the 1930s. In 1896, on one of his many trips there, Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, conducted ordinations at St. Mary’s, The Sun reported:

“After alighting from the train, the Cardinal ... was escorted to a carriage but, true to his love for bodily exercise, preferred to walk up the steep slope [to the college], the convent bells meanwhile ringing a welcome.”

The seminary closed in 1972 when the Redemptorists moved their headquarters to Wisconsin. Much of the land was annexed by Patapsco Valley State Park. Nine years later, an architect sought (and failed) to convert the main building into luxury apartments. In 1983, efforts to establish a non-denominational monastery and spiritual center also fell through. Gradually time, vandals and two suspicious fires in 1996 reduced the place to rubble, leaving broken glass, graffiti-strewn walls and a spooky air that has earned it the name “Hell House” or “Creepy College” by hikers and other passersby.

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