A Church of the People By the People For God

Historic Chapel Reconstruction - St. Mary's City (first Capital of MD)
Historic Chapel Reconstruction – St. Mary’s City (first Capital of MD)

This past Thursday I took the ultimate Catholic day-trip from DC.  I showed two British priests (both studying in DC) the historic parish’s of Southern Maryland!  Maryland is a beautiful state with a rich colonial history that often goes unnoticed, sandwiched as we are between giant Pennsylvania and Virginia.  My introduction to the state’s history came when I entered seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington.  The historic counties of southern Maryland (Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s) were annexed to federal city’s new diocese with the arrival of our first residential Archbishop, Cardinal O’Boyle.

St. Mary's City Chapel - Interior
St. Mary’s City Chapel – Interior

Like most 4th-graders I learned about Maryland’s founding by Lord Baltimore.  Catholic settlers dedicated to the concept of religious freedom for all landed at St. Clement’s Island in 1634, celebrating the first mass in the English colonies there on the Annunciation.  Many are aware of the ensuing lack of freedom as Catholics were outlawed by the “Acts of Intolerance.”  And some people know that Catholic Charles Carroll (cousin of the first Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll) signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, ultimately restoring religious freedom to ALL Marylanders.


What I bet no one knows… and what I learned in Southern Maryland on Thursday is that this local Church of Maryland had a beautiful and healthy understanding of the role of the laity centuries before Vatican II ever came to be.  Three stories:


The Carmel of Port Tobacco was established as the first Carmelite community in the English colonies… not long after Maryland was founded.  During the era of intolerance, and with a subsequent move in 1830 to Baltimore, the Carmel (i.e. monastery) was abandoned.  From the very day that the nuns left Port Tobacco, groups of lay people prayed regularly for the return of the nuns who had meant so much to their spiritual lives.  It took over 100 years and the work of a committee of lay people but Cardinal Baum welcomed a community of nuns back to Port Tobacco in 1976!  Today the Carmel thrives once more, fostering not only the lives of the nuns, but also a sizable number of lay “third-order” Carmelites from the surrounding region.

Carmel of Port Tobacco - Chapel w/ Cloister Grill
Carmel of Port Tobacco – Chapel w/ Cloister Grill
Port Tobacco - Original Colonial Convent Structure
Port Tobacco – Original Colonial Convent Structure

St. Ignatius Chapel Point is the oldest Jesuit community in the English US.  What many may not know is that in addition to the English Acts of Intolerance, there was a period when the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was suppressed by the Church (1750-1773)!  The reasons have to do with the pressure exerted on the Pope by the Kings of Spain Naples and Portugal… very complicated… suffice it to say it made being Catholic in Southern MD super hard.  As the Church’s properties were threatened by the colonial government it was the laity who saved the day.  The Matthew’s family bought all the Jesuits’ lands for $1 and held them in trust until the day the priest’s could return openly to public ministry… when the order bought back their holdings for $1.

St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point, MD (Oldest Jesuit Community in the English US)
St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point, MD (Oldest Jesuit Community in the English US)

In addition to this story it’s interesting to note that many of the Church’s in southern Maryland began as priest-holes in local manor houses.  Even when they were built, Catholics were forced to make their churches look like protestant meeting houses to escape abuse from neighbors.  Some would row across the Potomac from Virginia every week to receive the Blessed Sacrament… what a beautiful witness by the laity to their faith!

St. Francis Xavier, Newtown Neck - Oldest standing Church building in the Archdiocese of Washington
St. Francis Xavier, Newtown Neck – Oldest standing Church building in the Archdiocese of Washington

Finally a more modern example: The “Heavenly Presents” Catholic gift shop in Leonardtown.  Pulling into Leonardtown for lunch, my friends and I parked (completely by chance / providence) in front of a Catholic bookstore.  Now it’s hard enough to find a good Catholic gift shop in major cities nowadays… So you can imagine our shock at finding one in a sleepy village like Leonardtown.  Heavenly Presents, we discovered, is run by a group of local Catholic lay women dedicated to good works in support of the Church in southern Maryalnd!

St. Francis Xavier - interior designed after fashion of a protestant meeting house w/ double aisle
St. Francis Xavier – interior designed after fashion of a protestant meeting house w/ double aisle

There are many more examples of the beautiful spirituality of the laity in Southern Maryland… the rebuilding of the light house on St. Clement’s Island… the blessing of the fishing/crabbing fleet at Bushwood each year… the explosive growth of the the Church in traditionally methodist Calvert County… I could go on.  The point is this: lay spirituality is nothing new here in the DC area, but it is something we can rediscover if we open eyes of faith to the beautiful history right in our back yard.  Peace!

St. Francis Xavier - Interior
St. Francis Xavier – Interior

My thanks for Rev. James Bradley for access to his photos from our trip.

On Memory and Continuity

Continuing on the them of memory from my last post… Some thoughts about the National Mall.


I was riding my bike earlier this week and snapped a few quick shots of buildings along our very own Forum Americanum,  The National Mall.  At first I was playing a game of “Which of these ones is not like the other one.  Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a little startling to say the least.

(Disclaimer: I have no problem with dedicating a museum on the Mall to the history of any particular culture .  Admittedly I wish we Italian-Americans had gotten a prime spot, but that’s neither here nor

The museum’s jagged motif and bronze coloring  are startling in the midst of the classical splendor that characterizes the Mall.  The shock value of the building inspired me to do some research.  The NMAAHC’s design is drawn from a traditional three-part column characteristic of the Yoruban culture of Africa, as well as the motif of a crown.  For more details on the building philosophy, see this LINK for the Architect’s vision.  Unto itself, I’m actually somewhat impressed with the museum’s design concept.  So why do I still recoil?

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum

Relative to it’s neighbors the NMAAHC doesn’t seem to match… but riding along further I was reminded that other structures on the Mall also don’t seem to fit.  The Air and Space Museum, East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshorn, American Indian Museum and even the Smithsonian Castle.  Under closer examination I realized that MUCH of the National Mall doesn’t match DC’s general Greco-Roman theme.  So what does pull the Mall together?

I.M. Pei’s  East Wing of the NGA is built along the angles characteristic of DC’s squares and traffic circles.  An unorthodox structure perhaps, but thoroughly Washingtonian even if only subconsciously.  Also it’s facing stones match the white-gray color scheme of classical architecture.   The building is part of who we have been.

The Air And Space Museum
The Air And Space Museum

Color and general shape links the air and Space Museum to the rest of the Mall as well.  It’s proportions and building materials help it blend in.  As to it’s actual design, simplistic and brutalist architecture represent a major movement in post-WWII western art, which fled from the ornament of previous ages for a highly utilitarian (if not exactly exciting) design.  Similar principles inspired the Hirshorn Gallery’s geometric purism.  Both buildings are thus part of who we have been.

American Indian Museum

The American Indian Museum is clearly drawn from the native cliff dwellings of the pre-colonial southwest.  It is a part of what America was long before it was America.

The Smithsonian Castle looks NOTHING like the Mall today… but the Mall once looked much more like the Smithsonian Castle.  It’s a leftover from the Victorian-age of red brick neo-gothic architecture (still with us in the turrets and brick faces of our townhouses).  Like Augustus in Rome, FDR found Washington a city of brick and left it a city of Marble. The Castle is certainly part of who we have been.

In the end, the unifying principle behind today’s National Mall seems to be a memory of who we have been.  My anxiety, I think, springs from the past tense of that sentiment: who we HAVE been… because putting it in the past tense leave open the question: Who are we today?  and  Who will we be?

As Catholics we believe in a hermeneutic of continuity guiding us as a Church.  There’s no rule binding DC or even the US to a hermeneutic of neo-classical continuity… but the questions remain, “Do we know who we are anymore?” “Are we running toward a positive new identity, or just fleeing from an old one?” I don’t have answers but I think these are  all questions worthy of examination through eyes of faith.

Cleaning Up Memory

Le Bon Caffe (2nd St SE off Penn.)
Le Bon Caffe (2nd St SE off Penn.)

This morning I had a breakfast at a lovely spot just around the corner from our parish church, Le Bon Cafe.  It was a beautiful sunny morning.  Vintage posters ornamented the walls of my local eatery.   The coffee was hot and aromatic and the French toast was… well, a revelation!  Seriously, I may fast the rest of the day just to keep remembering this French toast.  All told the experience really took me back to a wonderful Christmas break I once enjoyed in Paris.  It also reminded me how blessed we are here in DC.   I’m going to connect this experience to another this week: cleaning the Church sacristy.

French Toast... of course in France it's just "toast"
French Toast… of course in France it’s just “toast”

The connection may not be immediately obvious, but it’s this: Memory.  Le Bon Cafe made alive once more the experience of my time in France.  The sacristy is another place full of memory… not my own, but my parish’s.  Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a little time each day carefully combing through our supplies, cataloging what tools we have to work with, and sending out damaged items for repair.  I’ve also put a lot of elbow grease into wiping down surfaces, disinfecting storage spaces and sometimes, literally, SCRAPING the accumulated dust of years off items.  I came to one pile of items way in the back of a creaky cupboard.  It was a collection of stones.  Two were altar stones from an old sanctuary… possibly the original church that stood here in the early 1800’s.  The rest were samples of marbles used in the current Church.  Looking at the grime coating the stones one of the parish staff said, “Father it looks like no one even remembers these exist.”

It seems that even a place full of memories needs frequent re-visiting if those memories are to stay vivid… that is (literally) “full of life.”  with lots of soap and scrubbing I managed to restore the gleam of these stones.  While working on them I thought of the parishioners who probably argued over color choices… the priests who had to make a final call… and the hard working artisans who installed them to the use of the Church and the glory of God.  They were alive again, if only for a few minutes in our parish church.

St. John Paul II spoke much about memory.  Some memories re revisit because they are so wonderful… The memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, the mass  (for example).  St. John Paul also spoke about the cleansing of memory.  Revisiting painful episodes from the Church’s past he begged the mercy of God and set up a better basis for moving on toward our final judgment.  What memories do each of us need to revisit?   Whether they are memories filled with gratitude or ones that need to be filled with healing grace, the journey is worthwhile.   Just a thought: look at memories with eyes of faith this week.  Peace!