Susan M. Deeney
Priest Neale's Mass House and Mill Site
2618, Cool Spring Road, Churchville, Harford County
Priest Neale's Mass House, which has been the name of the structure since 1756, is a stuccoed stone dwelling constructed c. 1743 by Jesuits for use as a mission before Roman Catholics obtained freedom of worship under the United States Constitution. The building stands five bays wide by two bays deep and 1 1/2 stories tall beneath a slate-covered gable roof. The original house had a hipped roof, which was destroyed by fire around 1940. The interior floor plan is unique in Maryland--and possibly American--architecture and reflects the building's combined function as Jesuit priests' residence and house of worship: an unusually wide center hall provided meeting space and was flanked by two chambers on the west and a large reception room on the east. Some interior details (such as mantels) date to the second quarter of the 19th century (after the house was sold by the Church) but they do not lessen the integrity of the structure, nor does the one-story ell added to the northeast at about the same time. These details and additions are sympathetic in design and scale to the original material of the house, as is a 20th-century kitchen, located to the rear of the ell. Original, 18th century material includes walls, doors, window framing, walnut ceiling beams (plastered over), and much hardware. Northeast of the house, on the banks of Deer Creek, is the site of an 18th century mill which the priests used to generate money to support their endeavors. Maryland Mill expert John McGrain calls it "the first mill in the region." The millrace, ruins, and millstones were all in evidence as recently as the 1930s and, while only traces of the millrace remain visible today, the site is potentially of great archeological significance.
Priest Neale's Mass House (interchangeably called Paradice) is important as a seemingly unique building whose idiosyncratic form is the direct result of the troubled early history of the Roman Catholic church in Colonial America. Its peculiar floorplan, still largely intact, is the physical manifestation of colonial Maryland laws promulgated after England's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 swept away the colony's original Toleration Act. These laws culminated in the act "to prevent the growth of popery" passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1704. Queen Anne modified that law in 1705 and 1707 and the result allowed Catholic priests to conduct masses, but only in private homes. Chapels, in order to exist at all, had to be part of a larger residence. This allowed Maryland's Catholic clergy to perform their spiritual duties using their residences and to "circuit ride" thence to celebrate the mass in the far-flung houses of the faithful. In addition, the entire nominated acreage may be read as a single unit. The priests lived and worshipped in the house while they and their slaves tended the farm and ran the mill on Deer Creek to generate income, thus creating the largely self-sufficient economy. Moreover, no building similar to the "Mass House" exists elsewhere in America because no other colony had a similar history. And of the few colonial-era Catholic-associated buildings in Maryland, none is architecturally comparable to Paradice, which is a dual-use structure which reads as an organic whole. Other dual-use buildings exist but they read as dual-use, in each case the religious area of the building is clearly discernible from the living quarters. The Mass House gains further importance for being one of the oldest extant buildings associated with the Catholic Church in America. Only Maryland and Pennsylvania, among the English American colonies, had any substantial and active Catholic populations at the time or any colonial era Catholic-associated architecture. Of the handful of Catholic structures standing in the former 13 colonies, only the chapel at Doughoregan Manor in Howard County, the timber framing of St. Francis Xavier in St. Mary's County, and altered sections of St. Thomas Manor in Charles County, antedate the "Mass House." The rest are all younger and were the products of legal and social conditions very different from the hardships and persecution faced by the first priests in Maryland. Nor can there be any doubt that the house is Priest Neale's. The chain of title is complete and as long ago as 1816 Leonard Neale, Archbishop of Baltimore, wrote that this house "was the very one purchased by Bennett Neale, an uncle of mine, who was missionary at Deer Creek Church and lived on the plantation.