With all that has been written about Columbus’ travels to the New World, one of the least known to many actually contains the most important Columbus collection on the North American continent. It is the Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion Museum in Centre County, Pennsylvania.
The extensive research that is often conducted by staff members of the Italian Tribune brought them to the museum that has connections to Christopher Columbus, Napoleon and even Downton Abbey, with each of these names associated with this small Pennsylvanian museum.
The museum’s property includes a large mansion, several outbuildings and a small, rustic chapel. The home began as a small log home, built in the first years of the 1800s by one of the area’s first residents, David Boal. He was the first of eight generations of Boals who lived in the home.
David Boal’s son, George Boal, was very influential in the area, serving as a Representative in the Pennsylvania House and the founder of the Centre County Agricultural Society. His lobbying in Harrisburg was part of the reason the state placed the Farmer’s School (now Penn State) in nearby State College in 1855. However, it was George’s grandson, Theodore Davis Boal, who had the most effect on the home that visitors see today and the amazing items contained within.
Boal was trained as an architect and designed several buildings in Denver, Colorado, before traveling to Paris, France, to continue his studies. While there, he married Mathilde Dolorès Denis de Lagarde, a French aristocrat related to Christopher Columbus. When his wife’s aunt died, the Columbus (Colon) family castle in Asturias, Spain, was inherited by the Boal family.
Boal built an exact replica of the castle’s chapel and had the entire contents of the castle crated and shipped to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1909. The stone building that houses the chapel sits on a small knoll about a hundred yards from the mansion. While certainly charming, its relatively nondescript exterior conceals a beautiful interior.
Walking through the doorway is like walking through a portal into Old World Europe. The ornate chapel is unlike anything likely encountered on this side of the Atlantic. It is immediately apparent that great care was taken to present the chapel exactly as it had been in Spain.
The contents of the chapel include beautiful 15th century paintings as well as the chapel’s original wooden door. On the wall hangs the Columbus family tree and the Columbus family coat of arms. The chapel also contained Columbus’ own Admiral’s desk and several religious statues that are believed to have accompanied the Great Navigator during his voyages.
The chapel’s confessionals had been converted by the Boal family to hold nearly 500 years of family correspondence. Tens of thousands of pages of perfectly preserved documents sit on the cabinet’s walls. The beauty and readability of these ancient pages are a treasure unto themselves, but it is a small silver cross atop the altar that may well be the most amazing piece in the entire chapel. If you look closely, visitors will notice two small pieces of wood inside. According to a manuscript on the wall, these wooden pieces are from the “True Cross of Jesus.” The slivers of wood came from the left arm of the cross, which was taken to Spain in the fifth century by Saint Toribius, keeper of holy relics in Jerusalem. In 1817, the Bishop of Leon presented the pieces, in the reliquary, to Joseph Columbus, along with a letter documenting their authenticity. To have a relic of this magnitude in the middle of Pennsylvania is truly remarkable. It is easy to spend hours examining each item displayed, but the Columbus Chapel is only part of the experience.
In one of the outbuildings on the property, an otherwise undistinguished structure not much bigger than a large shed, is a significant collection of firearms and weaponry. During his time in Europe, Theodore Davis Boal not only studied architecture, but also started a cavalry unit that fought in Europe during World War I. He collected many weapons from both that conflict and from history. Some of those items were used to start the Pennsylvania Military Museum, located across the street on lands donated by Boal. However, Boal also kept items in his personal collection, many of which are on display today. Possibly the most significant piece that is associated with a historic figure is Mexican General Poncho Villa’s hat. Boal and his cavalry troop were sent to New Mexico in the years leading up to World War I to capture Villa. They never caught him, but Boal did manage to get his hat.
Moving into the mansion, you will continue to be fascinated by the items contained. The piano in the home originally was purchased by Dolly Madison and spent a century in the White House before being acquired by the Boal family. The display case in one of the rooms contains a lock of Napoleon’s hair (he was related to the Boal family), as well as items from the graves of King Tut’s grandparents. A Boal relative financed Howard Carter’s first expedition in Egypt. Carter later discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun on an expedition financed by Lord Carnarvon, whose estate has been famously presented as Downton Abbey.
On October 13, the museum is hosting the Olde Europe Renaissance Festival, celebrating autumn with a Renaissance-themed fair of delicious foods, crafts, music and dance from the Olde World. Special demonstrations include sword fighting, archery and knights in armor. In conjunction with the fair, the Boal Mansion Museum Concert Series will present a recital by members of the Allegria Ensemble, featuring music of the Renaissance, including Italian composer Federico Fiorillo.
The Museum is open for drop-in tours from May 1 through October 31, but visitors may schedule a tour any other time by calling 814-876-0129. The hours open for regular tours are Tuesday through Sunday, from 1:30 until 5:00pm. If you love history, the Columbus Chapel and Boal’s Mansion Museum should receive a high priority on a must-see list of things in Pennsylvania.
The Columbus Chapel and Boal’s Mansion Museum is located at 163 Boal Estate Drive, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Visit their website: www.boalmuseum.com.