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Just more than 350 years since it was first built, a team of archaeologists believes it has found the site of the original 1662 St. Francis Xavier chapel in Compton.

“We feel confident saying we have the chapel site,” said Scott Lawrence of Grave Concerns after four days of excavation at the parish’s cemetery over the Labor Day weekend.

“Everything says this is it,” he said. “It’s plus or minus a few feet, but we’re within 10 feet of it either way.”

The archaeological evidence is there — iron nails, broken pieces of tile and shards of glass, and the parish’s history said the original chapel was there next to the cemetery. The current church, first built in 1731, is about a half-mile south of the cemetery.

The team also believes it has found the site of a domestic structure next to the chapel site, Lawrence said. That is where the priest or missionary would have lived.

“I’m certainly satisfied with their preliminary indication they found the chapel site,” said the Rev. Brian Sanderfoot, pastor of St. Francis Xavier, on Thursday. “I’m pleased with that report.”

Last weekend’s excavation was the third this year. The entire effort cost between $10,000 and $15,000, Sanderfoot said, funded by the parish, donations and the Knights of Columbus.

The archaeologists were fortunate that the site had not been disturbed by farming or development. It’s been a cemetery for hundreds of years, so the team only had to dig down 4 to 6 inches to reach colonial-era soils.

“With the density of graves they might have obliterated any posthole,” Lawrence said. A posthole would be the telltale sign of a building.

However, the church had record of the 1661 deed giving 1˝ acres of ground for a church and cemetery, so the team knew it was in the right area. Evidence of unmarked grave shafts was found, indicated by lighter-shaded earth where clay was dug up and mixed into the soil. Some were right next to each other and others overlapped. A 2011 study of the 4˝-acre cemetery by Grave Concerns said there are 544 burials there, of which 393 still have grave markers. No graves were disturbed in the search for the chapel.

The actual size of the chapel is still not known, but the parish wants to mark its location in some way. “We need to step back and think of the best way to memorialize,” Sanderfoot said. He said he wants to see St. Francis Xavier Church preserve its history the way that the Sotterley Plantation and Historic St. Mary’s City does.

The first chapel and its cemetery were accessible by water in its time, Sanderfoot said. The body of water called St. Williams Creek is now silted in. Newtowne Neck is a peninsula bounded by the Potomac and Breton Bay. It was the second area of St. Mary’s to become inhabited by the English after St. Mary’s City was purchased from the Yaocomico Indians in 1634.

Newtowne Neck was the center of county business before Leonardtown became the county seat in 1708. The Society of Jesus bought 850 acres at Newtowne Neck in 1668 for 40,000 pounds of tobacco, the literal cash crop of the time, though the Jesuits were using the location for a mission since 1640, wrote late county historian Edwin Beitzell.

Catholics fell out of favor in the Maryland colony after 1689 and the original chapel was gone by 1719, records show. The church’s cemetery became neglected and overgrown on two occasions. During the 1950s, a bulldozer was used to clear out the vegetation, knocking over gravestones in the process. It happened again in 1989.

There is an overgrown pile of cemetery debris in the nearby woods.

The 250 parishioners of St. Francis Xavier celebrated the church’s 350th anniversary at a dinner on June 9.

jbabcock@somdnews.com