The 200-year-old Neo-Gothic chapel is so carefully tucked behind a shaded block of Paca Street that many Baltimore natives don't know it exists.
But yesterday, Catholic leaders and longtime admirers of St. Mary's Chapel pledged to increase its visibility while celebrating the vital role the church and its surrounding historic site have played in American Catholicism.
"We live in such a fast-moving society," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. "It would be easy to overlook our site and the importance to our faith. But it is important we do not. The more solid the roots are, the stronger the tree can grow."
About 100 people gathered for Mass at St. Mary's Chapel to celebrate the bicentennial of the dedication of the church and the arrival 200 years ago of one of its most famous parishioners, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Afterward, Catholic dignitaries held a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new visitors' center to be constructed on the 1.5-acre grounds.
The property, owned by the Sulpicians - an order of priests - for more than two centuries, is the original campus of St. Mary's Seminary and University, which was established in 1791 as the first Catholic seminary in the United States. The seminary was demolished in the 1970s, the training consolidated with the seminary's Roland Park campus, and the Paca Street area where it once stood was converted to a city park.
Today the site is known as the St. Mary's Spiritual Center and Historic Site and includes the chapel, a center for spiritual training, and Seton's brick federal-style home, called the Mother Seton House.
Seton, who was born an Episcopalian in New York, was a widowed mother when she arrived at the steps of the Paca Street chapel on June 16, 1808, during the church's dedication ceremony. Baltimore Bishop John Carroll invited her to Paca Street to establish a school for children. She later went on to dedicate her life to helping children and the poor, founding the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and establishing a free Catholic school for girls in Emmitsburg. In 1975, she was canonized as the first U.S.-born saint.
"I feel an honor to be walking in her footsteps physically, and I feel an honor to be living the vocation she believed in," said Sister Betty Ann McNeil, archivist for the Sisters of Charity. "To people deciding their life calling, to people considering a religious commitment, she is a role model."
Seton's life should also inspire anyone who has been troubled, McNeil said. "She was a reject daughter, a troubled adolescent, a socialite, a widow, a mother and someone who suffered tremendous illness and loss and also a woman of faith," she said, adding that throughout her hardships, Seton served others and persevered. "She is a role model to people of all ages, men and women."
In addition to Seton, the historic site nurtured other famous priests and nuns, including Francois Charles Nagot, a French Sulpician priest who led the first group of Sulpicians to the United States, and Mary Elizabeth Lange, an immigrant from Haiti who founded the first order of black nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
"The people who went on from this site literally changed the landscape of the Catholic Church in the U.S.," said the Rev. John C. Kemper, the site's director.
Sister Stephen Beauford said yesterday's ceremony should serve as a reminder of the good work done by people of faith, especially at a time when fewer people are becoming priests and nuns.
"There are many people who have a difficult time finding their purpose," said Beauford, who works with prospective nuns for the Oblate Sisters in Baltimore. "A lot of people will tell me, 'It's a beautiful life, but it's not for me.' "
Beauford and others said they hoped the new visitors' center would provide more context for people interested in becoming a priest or nun, and for those simply interested in the Catholic faith.
The new visitors' center, slated to be complete next year, will accommodate large groups, tours and lectures, said the Rev. Ronald D. Witherup, provincial superior of the Sulpicians. And behind the center, there are plans to transform the lush grounds into a meditative garden.
"We hope to create a wider awareness of the Catholic contribution to this country," he said.