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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Clayton chapel has place in history

By Elizabeth Redden, Delaware State News CLAYTON — The bell tower has long been torn down and no peal rings through the sky to welcome old parishioners home. Inside, the light blue-green paint used to cover the trim has begun to peel in places, with scrapes of the church’s old wooden gut peeking out from its walls. The wood floor is covered by well-worn, off-white linoleum tile that wasn’t in place when the structure was built in 1896. The original stamped tin ceiling is hidden beneath layers of tile, the central altar is missing and wooden kitchen chairs are lined in rows where pews once sat. But for Phil Voshell of Smyrna, who grew up attending St. Joseph’s Church in Clayton, moving from baptized baby to altar boy to groom before the same altar, the stained-glass windows still sparkle the same way. Moving back to Smyrna last year after 38 years away, his first visit to the church he was married in 49 years ago filled him with memories and the sense that “it’s basically the same.” Mr. Voshell is serving as chair of a project to renovate the former St. Joseph’s Church, a site that holds a special role in the state’s religious and racial history. Formally inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the church, now known as St. Katherine’s Chapel, was built by the Josephite Order as part of a boarding school for blacks from Boston to Baltimore who came to Clayton to learn industrial and agricultural trades. Robin Bodo, historian at the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said Josephite Father John DeRuyter developed the school on 400 acres purchased by the future saint, Katherine M. Drexel. Ms. Bodo said the Josephite Order was founded in the 1870s to evangelize to freed slaves. At the St. Joseph’s Industrial School, which opened in 1896 with 25 students and had a peak enrollment of 117 students in 1937, blacks received education and were first encouraged to enter the priesthood and then the brotherhood when the former goal became too controversial, Ms. Bodo said. Meanwhile, Smyrna’s St. Polycarp parish, formed in 1883, was without a home after it sold its building on Mount Vernon Street in 1916, said the Rev. Thomas A. Flowers, St. Polycarp’s priest. The plan was to build a new church in Clayton, but world wars and the Great Depression delayed those plans and for 52 years the Smyrna-Clayton Catholic community was welcomed to attend church at the school’s chapel. Mr. Voshell said there was not much interaction between the towns and the school’s black students. The students generally attended church services at different times than the 125 parishioners Mr. Voshell estimated comprised the St. Polycarp’s congregation in the middle of the century. Even in an era of segregation the presence of the school promised hints of a better time. The swimming hole on the back of the school’s property was the meeting place for all of the kids from the school and from the town, Mr. Voshell remembered. “Coldest water you’d ever want to swim in,” he said. The St. Polycarp parish, now comprised of 575 households, continued using the St. Joseph’s Church as its worship space until 1968, when the current church in Smyrna was built, Father Flowers said. The school closed in the 1970s and its buildings languished in relative disuse. The Josephites maintained the property through the rest of the century before St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek finalized its purchase of the land in 2003. St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek, a charitable organization that provides a venue for community service, is now leading a fund-raising drive for the church’s renovation, said Marc C. Ostroff, the group’s executive director. He couldn’t estimate how much the project would cost, saying the group is still in the beginning stages and has not gotten expert opinions on what work needs to be done. Mr. Ostroff said the church is structurally sound, with a new roof and boiler. The group, he said, hopes to restore the building to what it looked like during the first part of 20th century. The foundation has not raised any money for the project, but Mr. Ostroff is confident it will find financial backers. He said he’s not sure what the community would use the space for once renovated — perhaps a spot for weddings, certainly a tourist stop, maybe a place for appropriate lectures or musical presentations. One thing he said it wouldn’t be is a fully functional church. Students at Providence Creek Academy, the charter school based on St. Joseph’s land, have occasionally used the chapel. Their crayoned drawings are taped to its walls, brightly lit by the sunshine filtering through the patterns on the stained glass windows. For the rest of the community, the church has stood virtually unused, but not forgotten. Beneath a three-arched stone gateway etched with “St. Joseph’s Industrial School,” the chapel stands as a monument at the end of Clayton Road. Its sophisticated Italianate architecture makes it virtually one-of-a-kind in a state where smaller, more “vernacular” Methodist churches, as Ms. Bodo said, are found on many corners. “It’s a place of serenity,” said Lorraine Goodman, program director of Middletown Main Street Inc. and co-chair of the chapel renovation committee. The school and its church are, Mr. Voshell said, among the three most important things in the small town of Clayton’s history, joining the railroad, which led to the town’s founding, and the former Wheatley’s Cannery. The combined populations of Smyrna and Clayton climbed by 17.2 percent, from 6,952 to 8,147, from 2000 to 2004. As the two towns propel themselves into the future, the significance of the church without a bell takes on even greater meaning for some who have their roots there. “The way that the whole area is expanding and growing, any time that you can keep a little bit of the history and keep some of the sameness of the community, that’s a good thing,” said Joyce Webber, chair of the board of St. Joseph’s at Providence Creek. “I don’t think the people who’ve moved here understand what went on or how important it was to this town,” Mr. Voshell added.

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