When the curator opened the door of the Columbus Chapel in Boalsburg, PA, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The small room, filled to the brim with 15th century religious statues and Renaissance paintings, rivals the collections of much larger, better-known museums, and yet it sits unobtrusively in the woods in central Pennsylvania.
Looking at the unassuming stone chapel, you’d never suspect that behind its intricately carved wooden door lies the most important Columbus collection in North America. Its location, now part of the Boal Mansion Museum, is located in Boalsburg, PA, minutes from the Penn State campus.
So how did it get there?
Eight generations of the Boal family lived in the mansion, including founder David Boal’s great-grandson, Theodore Davis Boal, who married Mathilde de Lagarde. In 1908, de Lagarde’s aunt, Dona Victoria Columbus, bequeathed the chapel and all of its contents, as well as items from the Columbus Castle in Asturias, Spain, to her niece. The items were then imported into Boalsburg by her husband, and the chapel was rebuilt, stone by stone, on the estate.
Untold treasures are on display in the chapel, including Columbus’ Admiral’s Desk, and art pieces that he collected during his sailing voyages. The room is full of magnificent 14th through 17th century oil paintings, as well as sculptures from Europe and the Far East, and a coat of arms decorated with five islands and five anchors, signifying the explorer’s discoveries.
Back in the day, upper-class families were often gifted with items from the church, and the Columbus collection includes two pieces of the True Cross of Jesus which sit in a reliquary on the altar, priests’ robes and the bone of a saint, among other religious icons. What I found most fascinating was the fact that hundreds of letters written by the Columbus family are stored in the confessionals—some of them dating back to 1450.
If you can tear yourself away from the chapel (and believe me, it isn’t easy), you can also visit the Boal Mansion, just a short walk away. Now a museum, the mansion serves as a time capsule of American and European history, and contains everything from a Louis Vuitton trunk full of Paris fashions to battlefield plans from World War I, to a lock of Napoleon’s hair. There is a piano that originally belonged to former First Lady Dolly Madison, a first edition of a Jules Verne novel in the original French, and weapons hailing from Medieval times through World War I. (For a look at more military items, you can wander across the street to the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which was founded by Theodore Boal in 1919.)
The Boals were a truly fascinating family—almost Forest Gump-like in their ability to be at the center of world events through the centuries. For example, the family founder, David Boal, emigrated from Northern Ireland and served as a captain in the Revolutionary War; his grandson, George, was one of the founders of Penn State University, and his great-great-grandson Pierre de Lagarde Boal served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Bolivia in the 1940s. His wife, Jeanne de Menthon was descended from Bernard de Menthon—later canonized as St. Bernard—and the couple’s daughter became the first lady of Maryland in the 1970s.
The mansion is not open year-round, so it’s best to check the website at www.boalmuseum.com or call to make an appointment to discover this hidden treasure. While a little off the beaten path, I promise you that it’s well worth the trip.
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