St. Mary’s Chapel

By Mary A. van Balgooy

St. Mary's Chapel

St. Mary’s Chapel

It all started with the building of the new St. Mary’s Church in the 1960s. The former chapel that had served the congregation for almost 150 years was now considered old, small, and out-of-date compared to the new church. The Archdiocese made plans to demolish it but at the last minute the chapel was saved by an unlikely group of people.

St. Mary’s Parish was established in 1813 but in Rockville, the Catholic congregation lacked a place of worship. The Parish began to raise money and three years later purchased a four-acre site and built a chapel on the “Georgetown-to-Frederick Road” (today’s Rockville Pike). It was an extraordinary Federal-style building because it was one of the first brick structures in Montgomery County. Named St. Mary’s, the first Mass was celebrated with eighty people on December 14, 1817.

Over the next century as the local Catholic population grew, St. Mary’s underwent several major renovations to enlarge and modernize it. By the 1870s, the chapel had been transformed into the picturesque Gothic revival style with stained glass windows, battlements, and an entrance vestibule.

Parishioner Ann Maria Weems disguised as a boy to avoid detection during her escape on the Underground Railroad.

Parishioner Ann Maria Weems disguised as a boy to avoid detection during her escape on the Underground Railroad.

From the time its doors opened, St. Mary’s has been associated with several significant people. Enslaved teenager Ann Maria Weems, who escaped from Rockville to freedom on the Underground Railroad in 1855, was baptized in the chapel and probably attended Mass. The Scotts, Fitzgeralds, Robertsons, and Delihants—all ancestors of noted writer F. Scott Fitzgerald—were active parish members. Indeed, Scott Fitzgerald journeyed from Paris to attend his father’s funeral at the chapel in 1931.

Yet for all the years it had served the community, St. Mary’s Chapel faced the wrecking ball in the 1960s. The Parish had launched a building campaign for a large domed church to meet the needs of the burgeoning population and new liturgical guidelines specified by the Second Vatican Council. Compared to the modern church, St. Mary’s Chapel was deemed too small and costly to maintain and additional space was needed for parking. As the new church neared completion, the Archdiocese announced plans to tear down the chapel and a demolition permit was issued. Stunned parishioners and Rockville residents quickly mobilized and waged a campaign protesting the impending demolition.

Public opinion prevailed. The parishioners presented their case to the Archdiocese and a compromise was reached: the parishioners agreed to maintain and rehabilitate the chapel at its own expense and the much-loved building was saved. The near loss of the chapel also launched Rockville’s historic preservation legislation—the creation of the Historic District Commission.

By 1979, St. Mary’s was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and rededicated and renamed “Chapel of Our Lady.” Since that time, the congregation has completed further preservation work and it is again used for daily Mass, weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. When the Parish celebrates its bicentennial in 2013, St. Mary’s Chapel will be standing as a tangible reminder of its long history.

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