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North Hills Monthly

Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion Showcase a World of History

Oct 01, 2016 02:10PM ● By Vanessa Orr

The Boal Mansion

On a lightly forested lot in Boalsburg, PA, sits a chapel made of stone. And while its intricately carved wooden door hints at a haven where a traveler might find peace, it gives no clue as to the untold riches that await inside.

The Columbus Chapel, part of the Boal Mansion Museum, is a study in contrasts. While its outside, designed by Col. Theodore D. Boal in 1909, is unassuming, its interior is filled with Medieval riches, including 15th-century religious statues, 16th-century Renaissance paintings, and two pieces of the True Cross of Jesus, among other priceless treasures.

Walking across the threshold of this chapel, which is located less than four miles from the Penn State campus, I was actually struck dumb. While you might expect to find this type of collection in a world-class museum, finding what has been called “the most important Columbus collection on the North American continent” in central Pennsylvania was a surprise, to say the least.

The backstory to the Columbus Chapel, and the Boal family, is almost as astonishing. The fact that eight generations of the Boal family were involved in almost every major American historical event, as well as had connections to royalty and world-famous figures around the world, made me wonder why I’d never heard of one of the nation’s founding families. 

For example, David Boal, the Scottish-Irish founder of Boal Mansion, escaped from the north of Ireland to the American colonies and served as a captain in the Revolutionary War before settling on 4,000 acres in Centre County, where he established a tavern and general store in what is today known as Boalsburg. David’s son, George, became one of the founders of Farmers High School—now Penn State University. David’s great-grandson, Theodore Davis Boal, studied architecture in Europe, where he met his bride, Mathilde de Lagarde, a descendent of European royalty and who was related by marriage to Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon). 

Theodore’s son, Pierre de Lagarde Boal, served as the U.S. ambassador to both Nicaragua and Bolivia in the 1940s, and married Jeanne de Menthon—her famous ancestor was Bernard de Menthon, who trained dogs to rescue travelers in the Alps in the 1100s. He was later canonized as a saint—yes, as in St. Bernard. And Pierre and Jeanne’s daughter, Mimi Lee, became the First Lady of Maryland in the 1970s.

The items in the Boal Mansion reflect this amazing history; among the many, many items the home contains are numerous trunks of 19th-century Parisian fashion; a first edition of a Jules Verne novel in French; battlefield plans from World War I that mark the location of German trenches; the original signatures of five U.S. presidents; a lock of Napoleon’s hair; items from King Tut’s grandparents’ tomb; and a piano from Paris that originally belonged to former First Lady Dolly Madison that was auctioned off by President Teddy Roosevelt. And this is just a start. 

A newly opened exhibit on the second floor showcases all of the military weaponry that the family collected over the years, from Medieval times through World War I—did I mention that the Boals also established the 28th Division Shrine and Pennsylvania Military Museum (right across the street) in 1919?

But let’s get back to the chapel. Part of the Columbus Castle in Asturias, Spain, it was once the property of Dona Victoria Columbus, aunt of Mathilde de Lagarde. In 1908, de Lagarde inherited the chapel and all of its contents, along with other items from the castle, which were then imported into Boalsburg by her husband. 

And what an inheritance! Among the many items to see are statues from the 14th through 17th century, European oil paintings and even the Admiral’s Desk, where it is believed that Columbus himself used to sit. There are also art pieces that he collected during his sailing voyages, and a coat of arms that includes the five islands that he discovered and five anchors. In my history lessons, I had always heard that Columbus died penniless—pretty obviously not the case. 

What’s almost impossible to believe is that even more delicate items, including textiles and paper items, have been preserved, including priests’ robes, a Spanish 17th century obituary chasuble, and a detailed family tree featuring the Colon family lineage. I can’t even explain my shock when curator Bob Cameron opened up the confessionals to reveal stacks upon stacks of letters written by members of the family dating back to 1450. 

On the altar, in a reliquary, are two pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified—priests used to give these to members of prominent families of the time. There is also a bone of a saint in the altar, which is currently being studied with the help of a priest, St. Joseph Academy, William & Mary College, and modern Penn State technology. 

You can take a tour of the estate and castle on Tuesdays-Saturdays from May 1 to October 31, or call for an appointment. The estate also hosts functions including a Civil War Ball, 19th-century dinner, and Masquerade Ball, as well as holds summer stock performances in the Nittany Theatre at the Barn, which is the oldest continuously operated theater in a barn in the nation.

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