The John Wesley Methodist Chapel and Cemetery in northern St. Mary’s County is likely to be nominated next year as an endangered site to draw attention to the need to preserve it.
Located off Aviation Yacht Club Road right outside the Wicomico Shores neighborhood, the cemetery has more than 100 graves and its church dates back to a few years after the Civil War ended.
The chapel is gone, but researchers aren’t sure what happened to it and when. The cemetery is overgrown and unmarked from the road.
The owner or the owners of the cemetery have not been located, complicating any effort to clean it up and preserve it.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Gracie Brady, historic preservation planner for the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management. She said she is going to nominate the cemetery as the most endangered site in St. Mary’s County for Preservation Maryland’s 2014 list of sites in need of preservation.
“The reason I’m nominating it is ... in the hope of finding the owners, or finding parties who might be interested to restore the cemetery,” she said last week.
Some graves in the cemetery are unmarked, some are sunken. Other headstones are in excellent condition, but “some of the stones have collapsed,” she said.
The Maryland Historical Trust has little information on the cemetery, but called “the site of one of St. Mary’s County’s earliest African-American church graveyards in the county. To the south of the chapel extends what is probably the largest and oldest African-American church graveyard in the county.”
However, genealogist and retired teacher David Roberts of Hollywood said there might be larger cemeteries at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Market or at Zion United Methodist Church in Hermanville.
The Maryland Historical Trust said in a 1994 survey at John Wesley chapel that “a pile of rubble stands on the chapel site, behind which extends the unkempt and endangered cemetery.”
The cemetery “consists of 110 distinct graves, some of which are marked with either engraved stones or field stones. The majority of the graves are unmarked. The cemetery is in very poor repair,” the historical trust said.
To preserve the cemetery, “it would have to be evaluated on how many graves are there because some of them don’t have markers,” Brady said.
The cemetery would be a valuable resource for genealogists, Brady said, especially for its African-American history. “There’s lot of history just sitting there,” she said. Because the site is overgrown, “if you haven’t been there, it’s not easy to find,” she said.
“There are a million of them,” Roberts said of other lost, forgotten or overgrown cemeteries.
The one-story frame chapel named for John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was built in the late 1800s, the historical trust said, and sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s the chapel burned. The chapel was in use until the 1950s, the trust said.
“It has sat dormant for 60-plus years,” Brady said.
The John Wesley chapel was still standing in 1984, Roberts said, but was described then as “sagging skeletal remains,” according to “A History of Methodist Churches in St. Mary’s County, Maryland,” written that year.
The chapel site was deeded in 1868 from Luke Barber. The church history said the deed “in fact indicated the church was already located on the lot. Mr. Barber, a member of a staunch Methodist family, may well have erected a church of that persuasion for his slaves.”
Property records list the 1-acre cemetery as owned by John Wesley Chapel Trustees, and should now still be the property of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, Roberts believes. “The trustees have been gone since 1942,” he said, when John Wesley Methodist Chapel joined a larger parish. The Wicomico Shores neighborhood was built adjacent to the cemetery in the 1960s.