DAVENPORT -- A standing-room only crowd packed into the chapel of St. Ambrose University Thursday, its attention fixed on a gray, weathered box rather than the stained glass windows and the paintings decorating the walls.
Barb Arland-Fye, editor of The Catholic Messenger eased forward for a closer look at the 128-year-old container, recently excavated from the cornerstone of Ambrose Hall.
"I guess I was imagining an ornate box, not something so simple," she said. "I'm amazed the box is so small. It looks just like a shoe box, it really does."
The crowd grew silent as university officials approached the box. The Rev. George McDaniel, a retired history professor, stood by the box and read from "A Great and Lasting Beginning", his book about the early days of the university.
He described the scene when the cornerstone was first placed in 1885. The stone was blessed with holy water and the copper container, containing items representing the area, was placed inside..
The Rev. McDaniel then opened the copper box while members of the audience craned their necks to get the first glances of objects within.
From the box appeared folded documents. They were yellowed by time, blackened by dirt and had reddened from an unknown pigment.
With shaking hands Rev. McDaniel placed the documents on the table, and members of the crowd gasped as some pages tore and flaked apart.
Included were several newspapers: The Davenport Democrat, The Catholic Register, The New York Freeman's Journal, The Western Watchmen and The Catholic Messenger.
After the container was emptied, Rev. McDaniel lifted it up and showed the audience the box with a few scraps of paper still clinging to the bottom.
"That's it. No gold," he joked.
Rev. McDaniel said it was difficult to discern what all the contents were because they were so fragile, apparently because the box was not sealed and was not waterproof. University officials hope the documents will be easier to handle after they dry, he said.
As someone who had been a student at the university, lived there, worked there and studied its history, Rev. McDaniel said it was fun to open the box, although he was disappointed the contents were not in better shape.
One document from the box was a list of Davenport city officials in 1885 written by the city clerk. The top of the page is legible but the rest fades from view, polluted by the red hue that spread throughout the box.
Heather Lovewell, the archivist at St. Ambrose, said she and Rev. McDaniel believe the red color came from the dye of a program cover within the box. Though she said it is speculation at this point.
Ms. Lovewell said she thought opening the box was fascinating and was relieved at least three of the newspapers were in decent condition.
"I'm a bit nervous about handling the rest," she said. "It's hard to know if they dry out, will they be easier to handle? Probably not actually, they could become more brittle."
Rev. McDaniel said the university may end up putting the documents in a display in the university's library. He said a new time capsule will be placed in the new cornerstone at Ambrose Hall as part of a renovation program. There likely will be a university program or suggestion box to figure out what will go in the capsule, Rev. McDaniel said. He joked that it would have to big enough to hold the book he wrote.
Mi. Arland-Fye said she wished the materials within the box had held up better.
"I would love to read the articles," she said. "I would like to see what happened then."
As someone who works with newspapers she said she was proud to see so many in the time capsule.
"Newspapers, they are the living history," she said. "They become our history."