St. Mary’s College and Chapel had a good run but, in the end, never had a prayer. The imposing structures were too big to survive disuse, the old grounds too perfect a milieu for mischief. Now all that’s left are scattered remnants and living proof that nature reclaims even the sturdiest foundations we build on top of it.
On the very edge Howard County, Maryland, a stone staircase ascends a forested hill that’s nearly surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park, a natural oasis amid the suburban development of Greater Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Climb these steps and you’ll come to what appears to be a scaled-down version of some post-apocalyptic ruin, overgrown paths that lead to piles of rubble, mysterious passages all but inaccessible.
Top: St. Mary’s ruins today; Bottom: St. Mary’s when it was still standing, photo courtesy MD State Archives
This was once a five-story brick college building, replete with a portico and cupola. There was a chapel here, too, built in the likeness of a cruciform. “St. Mary’s College and Chapel are one of the most impressive architectural complexes in Howard County,” claimed a Maryland Historical Trust inventory form. The striking scenery wasn’t lost on official observers, who noted that St. Mary’s commanded “an outstanding site at the top of a granite cliff, rising above the Patapsco River.”
St. Mary’s was a seminary that educated young men entering the Catholic priesthood. The college opened in 1868 and had a good hundred-year-plus run, but because of declining enrollment closed in 1972.
Although there are indications that there was a resident living at least briefly in the abandoned school (the Maryland Historical Trust inventory form lists the structure as “Occupied”), the imposing structure was nevertheless at the mercy of the elements.
The mystique of the place drew all the usual suspects: ghost hunters, teenage partiers, clandestine lovers. Such a spooky place also fostered cute-but-unfounded rumors, as with the notion that devil worshipers held their rituals there (which local police guarded, no less!), leading some to call the old ruins “Hell House.” The real history (available both on the Maryland Historical Trust inventory form and on this website) makes for a less-compelling story, which is why it was probably shelved in favor of wilder tales of intrigue and conspiracy.
Whatever tales the buildings’ walls sheltered went up in flames in 1997. Owners razed the shells in 2006. The absence of any structures makes for an even more mysterious place, because now all the staircases and footpaths go nowhere, lead to nothing. Sure, there are remnants of what St. Mary’s College and Chapel once was: chunks of ornate masonry, an intact hillside basement, lines of posts and trees that betray human design. Give natural forces a few more decades, though, and even those relics will likewise exist only in the past.
Here are really good photos taken by Geoff Lawrence at the site of the Hell House. You can see more of his work at the GLawrence Photography Facebook page.