When Daniels was a thriving mill town, back in the middle of the last century, the town's St. Stanislaus Church was filled every Sunday with music, fellowship and prayer.
Daniels is long gone now, but the crumbling stone church on the hillside remains a spiritual place. For more than a year, somebody has maintained a Catholic altar at the abandoned site in the Patapsco Valley State Park, with red ribbons, a waterlogged prayer book, a rosary - and three small journals where visitors pen prayers, remarks and observations.
It's the only shrine rangers know of in the 15,000-acre park, which stretches from north of Sykesville to the Chesapeake Bay, along the Patapsco River.
Thousands of people go to the park every weekend to hike, bike, jog and climb rocks, but the altar reveals humanity's softer, more spiritual urge to find peace in a metropolitan area that is one of the most developed and fast-paced in the world.
"Tis grand to find such company amongst the many who do not care in the world today," wrote someone who did not leave a first or last name, Jan. 18, 1999. "God is surely pleased."
The church lies where the mill town of Daniels used to be before it was razed in 1968 and then washed away by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. It's on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River, about a mile's hike in from the road.
Hidden in the woods
This time of year, the church is invisible from the path, hidden by foliage. So, although 200 people might walk along the river at Daniels on any given Saturday - and although the park as a whole serves a population of more than 2 million - St. Stanislaus feels as if it's in the middle of nowhere.
The ruins have an earthen floor, mostly covered in plants, with the remains of a bonfire on one side. The arches and windows in the crumbling stone walls look over forest in all directions. Trees grow in the middle of it; there's an overgrown graveyard out back. Aside from the occasional plane overhead, there are only crickets and birds to fill the silence.
In one corner of the church, a stone altar bears stones, leaves, religious objects and holy water. A tapestry of the Virgin Mary hangs above it.
The three journals lie inside a plastic container, wrapped in a plastic bag, protected from the elements. They share the box with a couple of pens and some brittle beech leaves, each bearing a word: trust, faith, honesty, hope, love.
Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, one can get a sense of what it is like to be alive in the Baltimore-Washington corridor at the end of the 20th century.
Observations and prayers
The journal entries in the church speak of humanity's need for calm and quiet amid the noise and haste. People write about depression, breakups, love and loss. They pray for loved ones. They pen quotes and prayers. They ask for help and give advice. Some entries are anonymous. Others have first names.
May 27, 1999: "Good to see something slip gracefully into the earth instead of paved over with a Taco Bell squatting over it."
April 10, 1999: "Hi this is Steve. I thought there was an A.A. meeting here today, I guess my directory is a little old. Anyway I got a dose of spirituality all the same. Life is Beautiful today. Peace and Love to all."
Sept. 5, 2000: "Goblin - I want you to know you will always be in my heart. ... I'm sorry for all the hurt I've caused you and I want to regain your friendship, I know it will take time. I will be getting off my medicine I am going to deal with my problem through nature and friends. ..."
March 17, 1999: "Are rocks 'sentient' or do they just absorb and reflect the energy of life around them?"
March 30, 1999: "I'm doing what I can to learn the history of this area. The stones to build this church must have been hauled up by oxen and set in place by mens' muscle. No labor saving devices back then. Note the ages of children on the gravestones child mortality must have been very high. There were hard times but people survived. Their faith in God had to have been incredible. If only we could muster that faith today."
Sept. 26, 1999: "I to am going through a hard break up. ... I have not been allowed to see my lovely little 5-month old daughter for a month now. ..."
April 5, 1999: "I made a clay model of this church, and I burn a candle in it. Isn't it ironic that the church was hit by lightning in 1921, and yet the sacred feel is still going strong 78 years later!"
June 6, 1999: "Just when I thought the world was populated entirely by selfish, opinionated disrespectful animals, I come across something beautiful and sharing as this. Thanks for restoring my faith. Peace."
The woman who started the journals, "Susan," does not reveal much about herself. On Dec. 22, 1999, she wrote: "What started for me as an expression of anonymous 'reaching out' to others in a time of personal distress has blossomed into so much more - and I thank each and every person who has left a bit of himself or herself here."
Unusual element of park
Jerry Bond, a ranger in the Patapsco Valley State Park, said he discovered the shrine a little over a year ago. He counts it as one of the more unusual things he has seen in his 10 years as a ranger - up there with a drunken man at the park campground who thought he was from Mars and a couple of hexagrams drawn into the dirt, which Bond says he destroyed.
Bond said it's both a blessing and a shame the church is so tucked-away and hard-to-find. It's a shame, he said, because so few people get to see it. Then again, the solitude makes it what it is: a place where harried people pause, if only momentarily, to find themselves again.
"It's not a problem spot at all," Bond said. "It's just that most people don't know it's there."