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Crumbling centuries-old chapel serves as reminder of need to monitor important sites

The Compton Bassett Chapel in Upper Marlboro was built in the 1780s for use by persecuted Catholics who could not worship in public places. The once-private family chapel has remained largely intact until March 14, when a wall on the structure simply fell apart.

The problem at the church, owned by Prince George’s County since 2010, came as a bit of a surprise, according to Greg Kernan, the county’s Natural and Historical Resources division chief. Kernan said the county was aware the church needed repairs, but didn’t expect the wall to collapse. According to Kernan, the only maintenance performed on the building since the county took it over has been to put a tarp on the roof to prevent water damage.

Fortunately, it was less of a surprise to others.

“It just befuddles me that [the damage] got this far,” said Edward M. Scott, vice chairman of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Photos of the sagging wall were taken by the commission just days before it crumbled. The chapel’s condition appeared to be so severe that the commission met March 18 to consider demolition by neglect — a process that can be taken if a building is in extreme disrepair — but decided against it.

In the county’s defense, money has been tight during the Great Recession, and historical buildings likely fell low on the totem pole in light of the needs of schools, public safety and other community resources. Even the plan to repair the church raises concerns as money slated for community center maintenance will be tapped for the fixes.

Regardless of the reasons, however, it’s clear the county’s historic properties need more attention.

Such treasures in Prince George’s must be preserved, and if county officials can’t afford to do so, they need to alert the public in case there are people who can. At the very least, immediate problems such as the wall crumbling at the Compton Bassett Chapel should not come as a surprise; historic buildings should be regularly checked so officials are aware of all the near-term challenges, even if they can’t provide an immediate fix.

Hopefully, the wall’s deterioration will lead to a better plan for monitoring the many other sites in need of aid.

Perhaps Billie Hinnefeld, an Upper Marlboro resident who lives near the chapel, said it best: “There is such a rich historical background here that you don’t have all over the state. It is sad to see that it can’t be better cared for.”