The process has been a long one. Precipitated, if you will, by water damage from a leaky roof, the process has included heavy equipment work by a contractor and Pax River Public Works, volunteer woodworking by a chaplain, and hours of sweeping and scrubbing by members of the chapel’s three congregations.
Complicating the repair and restoration was the chapel’s designation as a Maryland Historic Landmark. The cornerstone of the present structure laid on December 15, 1915. It was finished during 1916 as the first concrete building in St. Mary’s County. Interior work was completed in 1922.
The chapel’s predecessor dated back to 1796, when the site was consecrated by Father James Walton. It was named after the patron saint of the Sewells, then the area’s leading family. (St. Nicholas is also, appropriately, the patron saint of sailors. His Dutch rendition, Sinter Klaus, became our Santa Claus.)
St. Nicholas Catholic Church continued to serve its area parishioners, but in 1942 the U.S. Navy purchased 32 farms for what became NAS Patuxent River. The 6,384 acres included two churches: St. Nicholas and Cedar Point Methodist Church, which was torn down when the runway was built. The first Navy chaplain arrived in July 1943.
The three congregations — two Catholic and one Protestant — at St. Nicholas today have been healthy, but the building itself gradually deteriorated over the years. When the roof began to leak, the problem became immediate. Because of the chapel’s historical significance, the repairs were done within specific guidelines established by the Maryland Historical Trust.
The decision to replace the roof was made in late 2002, with a contract for $250,000 awarded to McGrath Construction, LLC, of Crozet, Va., according to Project Manager Glenn Garner, of the Pax River Public Works Department. (By contrast, the entire original construction cost in 1916 was $1,152.) Making the cost higher than it might otherwise have been was the fact that the slate required ‘‘happens to be very rare, and it could only be obtained at one quarry in Pennsylvania in order to preserve the historic value,” said Garner.
Hurricane Isabel struck during the roof work, in mid-September 2003, but greater damage was done by a later and smaller storm. On the night of Sunday, April 5, 2004, winds gusting to 39 miles per hour dislodged a piece of the parapet atop the bell tower, sending concrete blocks crashing to the ground below.
An investigation of the remaining parapet blocks discovered that they were also in danger of falling. The historical structure had to be carefully taken apart, with all the parts catalogued and stored so they could be reassembled later. That reassembly never happened, however. Instead, said Garner, a new, lightweight, stucco-finish lookalike was fabricated to match the old parapet. Cost: $42,000.
With the roof and tower completed, the focus shifted to the interior. Phase II received a funding grant in June 2005, and in November the project was again contracted to McGrath through Pax River Public Works, with work beginning January 8, 2006 at a cost of $178,000. The chapel was closed, with services moved to the fellowship hall in Building 401. (Building 401 had itself been the subject of a million-dollar project to remove lead paint and asbestos, and bring it up to current building codes.)
Old pictures, in particular a color photo dating from the 1950s, provided a guide, but the chapel could not be restored to its 1922 interior because there was no record of the 1922 interior to consult, according to Chapel Historian Donna Murphy. Even if there were, such a restoration would entail removing important sections of the chapel added later that are themselves historic.
The pulpit, for example, was donated from the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel during its renovations in 1943, and is itself over 100 years old. The chapel bell is the 300-pound ship’s bell from the aircraft carrier USS Attu (CVE-102), which took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The ten chapel stained glass windows were purchased by the congregations and installed between 1945 and 1953.
Most important was the Crucifix, sculpted for St. Nicholas Chapel by Felix de Weldon. De Weldon, during World War II a Navy Combat Artist, 2nd Class Seaman assigned to Pax River, was one of America’s most respected sculptors. His most famous work is the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The 1950 color photo became almost the project’s primary authority. Unless there was evidence to the contrary, said Murphy, it was the final authority.
It showed that the arched area above the altar and tabernacle wasn’t the white it was in 2004. Removing layers of accumulated paint revealed the original gold sheet metal surface. Careful cleaning brought out the details. Arches over the chapel’s statues of Mary and Joseph were painted gold to match it.
A communion rail clearly visible in the 1950s photo but removed at some time later was rebuilt and installed. A rug in the chapel was replaced by what looks like marble but is actually porcelain tiles.
Replacing the floor required structural work. The support beams underneath were charred black, but how they got that way is something of a mystery. ‘‘We couldn’t find evidence of a fire in the church, no matter where we searched,” said Murphy. ‘‘The best theory we have is that the beams were saved from the previous rectory when it burned down, and reused when building the church.”
She continued, ‘‘They actually had to put in new support beams because the porcelain tiles were so heavy that the floor would have collapsed.”
Chaplain Randy Williams notes, ‘‘Because of this work, the floor itself has been saved. There was a real danger of collapse even without the new tiles, and no one knew about the problem until that subcontractor went underneath and found the damage.”
Not everything was done by contractors, however. The altar was reconstructed to its original design by Chaplain Robert Malene, a skilled woodworker who donated his efforts to the project. A new hand-made, solid gold, tabernacle was purchased with church funds. New, larger statues of Mary and Joseph were anonymously donated by a parishioner. Small tapestries of the 14 Stations of the Cross were purchased by the congregation and hang between the chapel’s stained glass windows.
The interior work was done in two parts, informally called ‘‘Phase II” and ‘‘Phase III” although they are part of the same contract. ‘‘The contractor gave the building back to us in time for the Lenten period,” said Williams. ‘‘It was kept open through Easter and First Communion, which is Mother’s Day.” Before the opening, though, volunteers led by Mary Skirta made their presence felt as they cleaned and waxed the interior.
When the chapel reopened on March 1 for Ash Wednesday, ‘‘It was a dramatic difference even being incomplete,” said Williams. ‘‘The appearance of the white tile and gold arches was quite spectacular.”
Murphy added, ‘‘Many of us were in awe and excited at its new beauty. It gave the church a special feel — as though you’ve been gone for a long time and you return to find your home is clean and painted. I’m home and it’s even better.”
The chapel was closed for the last stage over the Memorial Day weekend. ‘‘This work didn’t have quite the same spectacular effect as all that gold,” said Williams. ‘‘This was mainly replastering the walls, because a lot of it had been damaged by water from the leaky roof. There were cracks, holes and big gaps in places where it had fallen off.” Garner added that the work also sealed lead paint and old plaster that contained small amounts of asbestos. At the same time, the chapel’s outer doors were replaced.
Once McGrath’s work was completed, it was time once again for cleaning and waxing by Skirta and her corps of volunteers. So thorough was their work that they recovered a 1961 church bulletin from a little-used corner of the building. The bulletin now has an honored place in the chapel’s history scrapbook. On Friday, September 15 — two days before the chapel reopened — congregation members spent the day carefully cleaning the hundreds of panes in its ten stained glass windows.
St. Nicholas Chapel reopened for good on September 17, and Msgr. Joseph Lamonde, who was command chaplain during most of the renovation, said of the result, ‘‘I was never expecting this when I was planning it out. Those who have spoken to me have been in awe. The people were and are overwhelmed.”