The Brick Chapel of 1667 and The Mystery of the 3 Lead Coffins at Historic St. Mary’s City

The story below consists of text from two different sources and contains 7 photo images. If interested, keep scrolling down.

If you don’t get to see the Brick Chapel of 1667 after Wednesday’s afternoon walking tour of Historic St. Mary’s City, it is worth going back Thursday afternoon to see. GPS address and Historic St. Mary’s City Map BELOW all text and photos. Chapel map icon near bottom of map.

Tragedy of the governor's son: DNA unravels secrets of a 300-year-old colonial child's harsh life who died suffering from rickets, scurvy and anemia - despite being heir to Maryland governor's mansion

  • St Mary's City was the capital of Maryland; now it's  an archaeology dig
  • Three expensive lead-lined coffins were dug up in the 1990s
  • Two had a former governor and his wife; one had the body of an infant
  • DNA testing has now proven that the child was the son of the governor
  • And other tests have revealed a lot about the boy's short, difficult life
  • St Mary's City began to die out in 1700s

The secret life of a 300-year-old infant boy has finally been uncovered thanks to a series of scientific tests that revealed he was the sickly son of a colonial Maryland governor. The child's body was found in a lead-lined coffin near those of governor Philip Calvert and his first wife Anne in a field that was once part of the colonial town of St Mary's City.

Thanks to investigations by forensic experts, they now know what life for the child was like - and it was hard indeed,The Washington Post revealed. 

3 coffins_1992

Mystery: Coffins, at left, found in what was St Mary's City, the ex-capital of Maryland, contained former governor Philip Calvert (larger coffin to right), his wife and the body of an unknown infant.

St Mary's City was established in 1634 as the first colonial settlement in Maryland, and quickly became a designated area of 'tolerance' for both Protestants and Catholics. But the city faltered due to conflicts between the two groups in the mid-1600s, and lost its reason to exist when the capital moved to Annapolis in 1695. The town dissolved and was turned into farmland in the 1700s, and is now the focus for many archaeological digs that turn up the city hidden beneath the topsoil.

One of those digs in the field where the city once stood, performed in 1991, unearthed the caskets of the Calverts as well as the tiny coffin of the mysterious infant. But the body was so tiny and underdeveloped - even the skull was just paper-thin - that it wasn't even clear whether it was a boy or a girl, much less who it had been. Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institute who had been examining the bodies, turned to Harvard geneticist David Reich to examine the child's DNA.


above, Discovery: The lead coffins were found in 1991 beneath the floor of a long-demolished church, the Brick Chapel of 1667, at right. St Mary's City dissipated in the 1700s and was turned into farming fields, but bodies remain.  At right, the reconstructed Brick Chapel is shown.

Owsley took samples of its bones, along with those of Philip and Anne Calvert, whose coffins were found near the child's, to Boston for Reich to examine. And Reich was able to confirm that the baby was indeed Calvert's son. He was unable to get DNA from Anne's bones, but it seems likely that she died before the child - whose name is unknown - was even born. More likely, he came from Calvert's second marriage, to Jane Sewell - which would have made him the heir to Calvert's sprawling colonial mansion, had he lived. Calvert's house, named St Peter's, was the biggest in colonial America - a sign of his immense wealth and position as a governor. It was the size of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, which was built in the 1700s had three stories of 3,380sqft each.

Recreated This is holographic recreation of Philip showing his b-m

at left Recreated: This is holographic recreation of Philip showing his bones. Scientific testing has revealed much about the lives his family lived in the former city.

But all the riches in the world could not have saved the child from the terrible conditions of colonial life, as further tests discovered. The baby was likely born in November 1682, four years after Anne died and Calvert remarried. Just two months later Calvert himself died, leaving Jane to raise the child. The child's rib-bones had the familiar deformities associated with rickets, a softening of the bones in children caused by a deficiency of vitamin D. That was most likely caused by a lack of access to sunlight, which is needed to generate the vitamin in the human body - probably a product of swaddling. Scurvy could also be seen, suggesting a vitamin C deficiency.  And there was evidence of anemia in the child's bones - most likely the result of bleeding, which was used as a cure-all solution by doctors of the day.

Examination of the expensive casket, lined with lead that would have been shipped over from the British mainland, revealed oak and pine pollen indicating the child died in the springtime.

A year or so later, Jane left America forever, leaving behind the bodies of Calvert, Anne and the child beneath the stone floor of a small brick chapel - a rare honor. That chapel was dismantled as St Mary's City evaporated, and what was once the hub of Maryland politics became fields and farmlands. But beneath that still earth lay the Calverts - and perhaps 400 or 500 others. And though the mystery of the infant is settled, experts continue to comb the land for clues about the other colonists and their world.

'Who were they?' asked Henry M Miller, director of research for Historic St Mary’s City. 'What could they tell us... about the nature of life in the early colonies of America?'

scientists in crypt brick chapel

In 2016 the Lead Coffins were returned to their original burial location inside the reconstructed Brick Chapel of 1667 under a glass floor so visitors may view them. 

at right View of the coffins as they were returned to the original burial position.

below View of the coffins from above at the floor level of the reconstructed Brick Chapel.

3 coffins 2016


at right Outside view of the reconstructed Brick Chapel where Philip Calvert, Anne Calvert, and a small child from Philip’s first wife were buried. 

Information below from Historic St. Mary’s City Website:

As part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of Maryland’s founding in 1984, the foundations of the 1667 chapel were partially demarcated and signs installed for visitors. A major research program was designed and excavations began in 1988. The purpose of the excavations was to retrieve essential information about the original chapel so it could be accurately recreated. This effort was aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1990 to allow several years of intensive investigation at this unique site.

The 3 lead coffins were found in 1991 as part of this intensive investigation.

In 1997, the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation initiated the Chapel Campaign with a goal of raising funds to reconstruct the 1667 Brick Chapel. The Chapel Campaign was led by private citizens who serve on the board of the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation. In 2003 and 2004, contributions from the public were supplemented by almost $500,000 in grant funds from Save America’s Treasures. The reconstruction began in 2001, and the reconstructed chapel was completed in 2010. Reconstruction of a pulpit and tabernacle, the simple furnishings that would be historically accurate, will take place as funding allows.

below Inside view of the reconstructed Brick Chapel.

inside brick chapel of 1667


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