It sounds like a never-published Nancy Drew book: The mystery of the hidden hatchet.
Sent to University Archives 40 years ago by then-president Father Raymond Roesch, S.M. ’36, this handheld tool — a mere 12-by-6 inches but weighing in at 2 pounds — was unearthed during the last significant overhaul of Immaculate Conception Chapel.
“This hatchet was found in the base of the main altar in the chapel when it was removed during the renovation in 1971,” Roesch wrote. “Thus, it was probably used in the construction of the chapel in 1869.”
The chapel is UD’s third-oldest building (behind Zehler and Liberty halls), celebrating its 145th anniversary next year. Steam heat arrived in 1898, followed by electric lights a year later.
A major renovation also occurred in 1949.
While the tool’s origin is uncertain, Doug Gaier ’86, president of the Ohio Tool Collectors Association, agrees that it looks like a shingling hatchet, a common construction tool in the 19th century. A smaller sibling of an ax, it was used to shape shingles and nail them in place, with a notch on one end for pulling nails.
University Archivist Jennifer Brancato has one theory.
“According to Eric Sloane’s book, A Museum of Early American Tools, these hatchets had a hole in the handle so the worker could hang it from his wrist. Ours doesn’t have a hole, so maybe it was dropped and never picked up,” she said.
Or, its placement could have been intentional. Placing relics beneath altars was a frequent liturgical practice, said Crystal Sullivan, director of campus ministry. In Catholic theology, an ax or hatchet can be an emblem of St. Joseph, indicating his work as a carpenter.
Covered in decades of dirt and rust, a maker’s mark on one side of the blade is illegible, save for a clear “No. 2” etched at the top and the words “cast steel,” indicating its blade material. The handle is carved wood, worn smooth with age.
A good mystery isn’t complete without a twist, though. Viggo Rambusch, whose New York City-based architectural design company completed the chapel renovations in 1971, remembers it a bit differently.
“I have fond memories of Father Roesch and the remodeling of the chapel for post-Vatican II,” he said, “but for some vague reason, I think the hatchet was found in the pulpit.”
If there are any secrets left to uncover in UD’s chapel, they might be found next year: renovations to update the space are planned for 2014.