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.

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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:

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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.