A History of St. Mary's College in Ilchester
Part I: From Tavern to Seminary
By Michael Duck
View , 10/19/00
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Many area residents have seen the tall building rising out of the forest, overlooking the Patapsco River near Ilchester Road. Others have seen or heard of the mysterious old staircase leading up from the road and back into the woods. Few people know the real story behind these structures, though. The building is what remains of St. Mary's College, a seminary for young men joining a Roman Catholic religious order known as the Redemptorists. The college operated at that site for over a century.
Mary Mannix, former Library Director of the Howard County Historical Society, said that the college is one of the most popular research topics at the Historical Society. Mannix commented that, among Ellicott City topics other than the Patapsco Female Institute, "it's probably the biggest single topic that people come looking for."
The site has played an important role in the history of Ilchester ever since the town was established. Even before St. Mary's College existed, the property's owners figured significantly in the histories of Ellicott City and Ilchester.
In the early 1770s, Joseph, Andrew, and John Ellicott traveled from their homes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to build a flour mill on the banks of the Patapsco River. The site they selected, of course, came to be known as "Ellicott's Mills," later renamed Ellicott City. The Ellicotts also acquired two miles of land up and down the river from where their mill was located, including present day Ilchester.
George Ellicott, Jr.- a grandson of Andrew Ellicott- had big plans for Ilchester. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was built in 1830, the train passed near his homestead in Ilchester. Ellicott hoped that the town would become a regular stop for the large Western trains.
"He thought this would be a good stop on the railroad for the tourists," explained Joetta Cramm, author of A Pictorial History of Howard County. "That's why he built the 'stone house' here: he was going to operate it as a business." Ellicott established a tavern in his "stone house," located a few hundred feet from the railroad, and built stairs leading down to the tracks. Though Ilchester seems awfully close to Baltimore to be considered a "countryside resort" by modern standards (just twelve miles away from the train), it was a long enough journey in the middle of the nineteenth century.
However, to Ellicott's chagrin, his tavern didn't become the successful business venture he had envisioned. The B&O Railroad selected Ellicott's Mills as the major stop after Relay, rather than Ilchester. According to Ilchester Memories, a history of St. Mary's College written by Rev. Paul T. Strott in 1957, stopping at Ilchester was "anything but convenient" for the large trains. Until the Ilchester tunnel was built in 1903, the trains had to go around a large hill and follow a sharply curving track. Trains that stopped at Ilchester would lose the momentum they needed to make it around that sharp bend. According to Cramm, the trains would only stop if a passenger made a specific request to stop get off at Ilchester. Few passengers made that request.
Ellicott eventually decided to sell the property and his failing tavern. This proved difficult, though, due to Ilchester's small size and its inconvenient location for starting a business.
The group that eventually bought the property, however, wasn't interested in starting a lucrative business. As Rev. Scott put it in Ilchester Memories, "The qualities that made it unfit for trade made it fit for the purposes [they] had in mind- retirement, study, and prayer."
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, was established by St. Alphonsus de Liguori in 1732. The first Redemptorists came to the United States in 1832. By the 1860s, the Redemptorists were looking to establish a Studentate within a reasonable distance of their provincial residence at St. Alphonsus Church in Baltimore.
They decided that Ellicott's 110-acre property would suit their needs quite well. As Rev. Strott put it in Ilchester Memories, "it was looked upon as ideal for recollection and research." Just as important, it was also close to a railroad, so supplies and students could be transported easily.
According to Ilchester Memories, George Ellicott, Jr. and Father Joseph Hempraecht (the Provincial) signed the Contract of Sale on June 12, 1866. The Redemptorists paid $15,000 for the 110-acre site, including Ellicott's stone house and several farm houses. Rev. Joseph Firle celebrated the first mass on August 28, 1866 in a small room on the third floor of the stone house.
After selling the property, George Ellicott, Jr. moved to Ellicott's Mills. In 1867, he became the first mayor of the newly-renamed "Ellicott City."
The Redemptorists quickly set about building the new college. Members of the order designed the four-story "upper house," which was erected in 1867. Classes began in September of 1868.
According to Rev. Strott's account, the first community at the school consisted of 29 people, including three fathers- who made up the entire faculty- and nineteen students.
The college grew quickly. In 1872, the Redemptorists built on to the "lower house" (Ellicott's original stone house), adding a wooden extension containing a chapel. Ten years later, they built a new chapel adjoining the "upper house." Within a few decades, they also added a fifth floor to the upper house.
Cramm estimated that the upper house was probably built to accommodate 100-150 individuals.
The college was initially known as Mount Saint Clemens. In 1879, however, priests installed the "authentic picture" of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the chapel, as Pope Pious IX had charged the Redemptorists to encourage devotion to St. Mary under the title of "Perpetual Help." When the new chapel in the upper house was dedicated in 1882, the school was renamed St. Mary's College.
Ardellia Cugle Smith, who still lives near the old seminary, can remember the college at its height. "There were so many boys coming in at that time," she recalled. "They used to be up on the hill...You could see them walking out through the field [to their] grotto up on the hill dedicated to Our Blessed Virgin Mary."
Smith's family has been involved with the Redemptorists from the time that the order bought the property from George Ellicott. Smith's grandparents started working at the college shortly after it opened, with her grandmother doing laundry and her grandfather tending the furnace.
Many other local Catholic families also developed relationships with the Redemptorists that the college. Although the Catholics in Ilchester and nearby towns of Gray's Mills and Thistle were considered parishioners of St. Paul's Church in Ellicott City, many were too poor to travel to Ellicott City each week to attend mass. With the permission of the Archbishop, the Redemptorists ministered to the local residents and allowed them to participate in masses at the college chapel.
As the local Catholic community grew, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, decided that a parish should be established in Ilchester. On February 12, 1893, the chapel in the lower house was reopened as a parish church dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help still exists, though in the late 1950s it moved to a more modern facility about a mile south on Ilchester Road. The Redemptorists continued to serve the parish until 1996, when the order turned it over to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The Redemptorists continued to operate St. Mary's College through the 1960s, but steadily decreasing numbers of students eventually forced its closing in 1972.
"There were just so few boys coming in," Smith explained. Like many Catholic religious orders, the number of young men entering the Redemptorist order has declined substantially. Smith said that the last class to graduate from St. Mary's consisted of only about ten students.
"I went to the last graduation down there [when] one of the boys invited me," she recalled. "It was really sad."
The Redemptorists sold part of the property to the State of Maryland in 1987, contributing to the Patapsco Valley State Park. The rest of the land was sold to private interests.
Today, little remains of the college's buildings. The lower house- including Ellicott's stone house- was destroyed by a fire on June 14, 1968. According to Cramm, what remained after the fire was torn down, and an unidentifiable rubble is all that's left of the structure.
More recently, the upper house was gutted by fire on November 1, 1997.
The history of the college has played a large role in shaping the local area, from its connection with Ellicott City's first mayor to its role in the development of Ilchester.
"I just always enjoyed it because of its relationship with George Ellicott," commented Cramm. "[It's] fascinating."
At the Historical Society, Mary Mannix said that her interest stems from the importance of the college itself.
"It was a major institution here in Howard County," she said. "Not only was it important to the county and to Ellicott City itself, but people came from all over to be educated there. It was one of those buildings, like Patapsco Female [Institute] which, besides being local interest, had a national reputation."
Nevertheless, amateur historians interested in doing their own research are strongly discouraged from visiting the property itself. What remains of the college's upper and lower houses are located on private property, behind clearly visible "no trespassing" signs.
Cramm has always been careful to make this point clear in her course on local history which she teaches for Howard Community College. "I always told the story about it, but said, 'You have no business going there.'"
The best way to get a view of the remains of the upper house is to hike to an overlook located within the Patapsco Valley State Park on the Baltimore County side of the river. A parking area on Hilltop Road marks the trailhead.
Individuals wishing to learn more about St. Mary's College and its history are encouraged to visit the Howard County Historical Society Library. The library, which is located near the Ellicott City Circuit Court building, is open to the public from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.