Using high-tech methods that have helped locate Egyptian pharaoh's tombs and buried Iraqi warheads, a team of Boston College geologists has tried to unlock the secrets of a mysterious tunnel behind one of the nation's oldest Jesuit churches.
The tunnel near the 358-year-old St. Ignatius Church in Chapel Point, Md., may have been used by Jesuits fleeing anti-Catholic persecution in Colonial days, and later by slaves escaping to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
A BC research team that included Prof. Emeritus James Skehan, SJ (Geology), Asst. Prof. David Lesmes (Geology) and several graduate students investigated the site. The tunnel had been filled in at some undetermined point, so the researchers used devices that emit sound and electromagnetic waves to detect its underground course.
"We're 100 percent certain the tunnel was man-made, dug by hand," said dig coordinator Vincent J. Murphy '52, MS '57, president of Weston Geophysical Corp. of Northborough, who said pottery unearthed from the site dates to the 1600s.
Murphy learned about the tunnel from a St. Ignatius parishioner he met in Iraq last year while both were working with United Nations' weapons inspectors. Murphy, who in 1987 helped locate a tomb holding sons of Ramses II in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, saw a chance to involve his alma mater in an archaeological inquiry into Jesuit history.
Murphy contacted his former teacher, Fr. Skehan, about mounting an expedition to the Maryland church. Lesmes and the students were enlisted as a research team. They spent a weekend in late February mapping the route of the tunnel, which runs at least 40 feet from an old slave cabin on the church grounds to a cliff overlooking the Port Tobacco and Potomac rivers .
Prof. Emeritus James Skehan, SJ.
Historical papers at the parish attest to the presence of the tunnel, but not to its purpose. Some researchers have speculated it was used to transport goods from the river to the church. Others believe the tunnel may have been used as a hiding place, first by Catholic priests and later by runaway slaves.
"That's the mystery," said Murphy. "It may have roots that tell us something about the persecution of the Jesuits, as well as the Underground Railroad and the role Jesuits played in getting slaves from South to North."
While the colony of Maryland was established as a safe haven for English Catholics in the 1630s, anti-Catholic bigotry had become entrenched by the early 18th century, with Catholics disenfranchised and the saying of the Mass outlawed.
"My own guess is that the tunnel goes back to the early times, when Jesuits were under persecution," said Fr. Skehan, former director of the Weston Observatory.
Similar use of the tunnel may have been made in the antebellum 19th century by runaway slaves, said Murphy, who suggested the Jesuit church directly across the Potomac from Virginia "may have been a first stop on the Underground Railroad."
Researchers said they plan to bring additional equipment on a return trip to the site in the next few months.
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