The fragments of the stone tablet - a memorial to John Henry Carroll, brother of one of Colonial Maryland's wealthiest merchants - would never have been discovered had a careless painter not backed his pickup truck into a monument in an Annapolis churchyard.
The accident left a gaping hole, through which parishioners of St. Anne's Church could see that the nearly 200-year-old monument marking the Carroll family tomb contained the tablet fragments - the last remaining pieces of Annapolis' first church.
From here, you'd expect an account of the effort to restore and display the tablet. Instead, the fragments sat outside for months, and ultimately were put inside a cardboard box and placed under a table in the church's Parish House on Duke of Gloucester Street.
Yesterday, 25 years after the contractor rammed his truck into the marble monument on Church Circle, parishioners found a permanent resting place for the fragments. They put them back.
Other options, including placing the tablet in the church's floor under thick glass or affixing it to the wall with metal bolts and braces, were considered. But church officials couldn't agree on anything - except that the other options were too expensive.
"The absolute feeling among everyone is that returning the fragments is an extraordinarily appropriate thing to do," said August Deimel, the church's communications director.
The decision required the church to lift the approximately 3-foot-by-6 1/2 -foot cap of the monument, which rests above the sealed Carroll family tomb. The brick at the bottom of the monument is the tomb's ceiling.
Col. A. Weems McFadden and Jack Ladd Carr, both members of St. Anne's, weren't quite sure how to proceed with the opening of the monument yesterday morning.
"Don't you think we ought to have someone doing something sacred?" Carr asked McFadden.
"That's your part," said McFadden, a Carroll descendant and physician, who led the effort to preserve the tablet fragments.
Carr read the prayer "For the Saints and Faithful Departed."
"We give thanks to you, O Lord our God, for all your servants and witnesses of time past," the prayer begins, which seemed appropriate and "covered everything," Carr said.
McFadden then said a few words about his lineage and the patriotism of the Carroll family, concluding with: "Let's go."
On that order, conservationist Howard Wellman yanked, turned and released a chain on a pulley system that straddled the monument.
Wellman's actions caused the top to lift a few inches, rotate about 45 degrees and come back down to rest at the angle, exposing the inside.
McFadden, his daughter, Ann McFadden-Moorman, Carr, Deimel and Wellman peered inside. They found cinder blocks, which had been put there in 1984 to prevent the monument from collapsing, and a broken coffee cup.
"You never know what you're going to find when you open something like this," Wellman said. "You're always a little nervous."
The last time the monument was opened, in the mid-1980s after the pickup accident, St. Anne's parishioners decided to excavate the Carrolls' underground tomb, which remained sealed yesterday and will not be opened as part of this project.
During that excavation, anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution analyzed the bones inside the tomb and identified the remains of five members of the Carroll family: two women and three men.
J. Lawrence Angel confirmed that the remains of Charles Carroll the Barrister, framer of Maryland's Declaration of Rights, had been moved into his wife's tomb in the churchyard.
The excavation of the remains overshadowed the discovery of the tablet's fragments, which were still covered in greasy soot from a devastating 1858 fire at St. Anne's, which is likely what damaged the tablet and prompted parishioners to place the fragments inside the monument.
After watching rain clean the exposed fragments over several months, McFadden asked a member of the congregation to move them inside and into the church's brick cellar.
Carroll the Barrister owned vast plantations in Baltimore County, an interest in the Baltimore Ironworks Co., and a warehouse and wharf on Annapolis' dock. He served in the General Assembly and the Continental Congress. (He's not to be confused with his cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, also a member of the Continental Congress, and the only Roman Catholic signer of the nation's Declaration of Independence.)
Carroll the Barrister is believed to have hired a London merchant to chisel the tablet in honor of his brother, who died in his 20s of tuberculosis in 1754.
After opening the altar, Wellman and his assistant, Becky Morehouse, gently placed the tablet pieces inside. McFadden also placed a sealed copy of the history of the tablet, which he wrote, inside the monument.
"They'll be in a bit of a shock in 200 years when they open it up and find out there's paper in there," McFadden said.