Cecil Bank buys chapel at auction
— As people waited for the auction of the last chapel in town to begin, there were somber faces in the crowd Wednesday morning.
“It’s awful, it’s a shame,” said Anna Smith, granddaughter of the Historic Little Wedding Chapel’s Rev. Frank Smith. “I don’t really want to be standing here.”
After being put on the auction block, however, the historic chapel’s cur-
rent state will likely change very little for the time being. Cecil Bank, the owner of the property’s mortgage, was the only bidder on the property and bought it for $60,000. There were no qualified bids, said Daniel Staeven, substitute trustee for the bank. In order to be qualified, a bidder must put down a $10,000 deposit, and no one did. Now, the chapel will continue in its foreclosure process and will likely be put up for sale by the bank in the coming months.
Elkton was once promi- nently known as the “Marriage Capital of the East,” due to Maryland’s comparatively lax marriage license rules and the town’s border location. At the turn of the 20th century, many of Maryland’s border states instituted 48-hour waits for couples to use a marriage license, but the Free State carried on unfettered.
At one time, more than 15 chapels performed thousands of weddings along
Elkton’s streets in a year. Even celebrities such as baseball great Willie Mays and actress Joan Fontaine came to Elkton to tie the knot. After Maryland instituted its own 48-hour wait in 1938, however, the attraction of Elkton waned, although marriages here were still popular for years. Elkton’s legacy as a bastion for elopers carried well into the later half of the 20th century, even featured in dialogue in the classic 1940 movie “The Philadelphia Story,” starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
Today, the Historic Little Wedding Chapel, in operation since the 1920s under a long lineage of ministers, is the last vestige of the marriage industry’s heydays though. The Rev. Frank Smith, chapel owner and minister, said he has married almost 6,000 couples, and the chapel has seen hundreds of thousands of couples married since it opened. Smith’s late wife, Barbara, purchased the chapel in 1980, and he moved into the building after his wife’s death in 2013.
Smith received notice from Cecil Bank that it was no longer funding his business equity and wanted full payment within 30 days last year. The bank itself is under a directive from the U.S. Federal Reserve System to raise enough capital to be deemed adequately capitalized. Smith said he was up to date with his first mortgage and equity line, but the bank requested $80,000 for his business line of credit.
The bank began the foreclosure process in August while Smith, along with his local lawyers who represented him pro bono, tried to fight the foreclosure process. They were ultimately unsuccessful and in February, a judge ruled in favor of the bank to proceed with the foreclosure on the building.
While several members of his family attended Wednesday’s auction, Frank Smith said he could not bear to do so.
“I didn’t want to have any part of it,” he said. “It was just too depressing.”
Frank said he feels “numb” because he and Barbara, owned the chapel for 36 years and he had done everything he could to prevent the foreclosure. He said he does not know if the bank will make him leave or allow him to stay.
“I’m gonna let (the bank) come to me, because it’s basically in their ballpark,” he said.
Frank said there was talk of a few people wanting to buy the property and allow him to continue with the chapel, but that did not happen during the auction. Although he is unsure of what the bank wants to do, he does have an apartment lined up in Newark, Del., he said.
Frank said he plans to semi- retire, but continue to perform weddings at the couples’ choice of venue. Frank said he has weddings booked through July in the chapel. He said he is in the process of fixing up a recreational vehicle, which he bought in January, to travel the United States.
Meanwhile, others feel the loss of the chapel, as well.
“It’s just so upsetting because I love the chapel, I’ve always loved the chapel,” said Susie Smith, Frank’s stepdaughter.
She said her mom, Barbara, bought the chapel and worked hard to keep it going. Susie said she took pictures of the couples and did clerical work such as booking couples for a time.
Before the auction, Anna Smith said she hoped that someone would buy the property and keep it as it is. She has many memories of the chapel, including talking to brides about their dresses and watching them walk down the stairs to the altar.
“I was scared someone was going to buy it and turn it into something else other than the chapel,” she said after the auction.
Lisa Bush, in- house photographer for the chapel, said it is her “happy place,” because she is able to capture couples’ memories during their wedding.
Anna Smith, Rev. Frank’s granddaughter; Susie Smith, Frank’s stepdaughter; The Rev. Frank Smith and Lisa Bush, in-house photographer, stand outside of the Historic Little Wedding Chapel on Wednesday after the auction.