The United States’ Catholic Beginnings in Colonial Maryland

by Napa Institute
Published In September 25, 2018

Maryland is a site of many religious and secular historical developments from pre-colonial settlement and European exploration to territorial battles and religious conflict. While Maryland was not the first place that Roman Catholics settled in what would become the United States, it was instrumental to the early development of Catholicism.

In colonial times, Catholics from Europe sought refuge from religious persecution in Maryland — but also encountered ongoing oppression during years of Protestant reign. As we gather in Washington, D.C. for our two conferences this October, here’s a look at the history of the Catholic beginnings of the United States in colonial Maryland.

The Province of Maryland began as a proprietary colony in 1632 established by the English First Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, as a refuge for from religious wars in Europe for English Catholics. After Lord Baltimore’s death, the charter for the colony from King Charles I was passed on to his son Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore. Led by Cecil’s younger brother Leonard Calvert, the first Catholics arrived in Maryland in 1634. They landed on Saint Clement’s Island in southern Maryland where the first Catholic mass was celebrated by the Jesuit priest Father Andrew White on March 25, 1634 — now known as Maryland Day.  

An excerpt from Father Andrew White’s recollection of the voyage to Maryland expands on the celebration: “On the day of the annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary, on the 25th of March, in the year 1634, we offered in this island, for the first time, the sacrifice of the mass: in this region of the world it had never been celebrated before. Sacrifice being ended, having taken up on our shoulders the great cross which we had hewn from a tree, and going in procession to the place that had been designated, the Governor, commissioners, and other catholics participating in the ceremony, we erected it as a trophy to Christ the Saviour, while the litany of the holy cross was chanted humbly on the bended knees, with great emotion of soul.”

Although Maryland had a predominantly Catholic population, ongoing battles over land with Protestants lasted for more than a decade starting in 1644. William Claiborne, a Protestant from Virginia, had set up a trading post on Kent Island off Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay — but Calvert seized it from him in 1638. Claiborne responded to this territorial conquest by organizing a revolt against Calvert in 1644 with Maryland Protestants. Although Calvert had to flee to Virginia, he returned with armed forces in 1646 and regained his proprietary governance. The Protestant uprisings against the Catholics and proprietary government continued, including a revolt by Puritans in 1650 who founded the city of Providence, Maryland.

Overtaking the proprietary government, the Puritan revolters prohibited the practice of Catholicism and Anglicanism from 1650 to 1658. An army led by Maryland governor William Stone was sent by Cecil Calvert to end the Puritan governance in 1655 — known as the Battle of the Severn. The Puritans prevailed, defeating Stone’s forces. Under Puritan rule, which lasted until 1658, the Catholics in Maryland faced persecution and may Catholic churches were destroyed. Despite this lack of religious freedom, many Jesuits in Maryland secretly continued to host Catholic schools at their manor.

After the Calverts regained governance, the Toleration Act was put back into practice, initially created in 1649 to establish religious freedom for Trinitarian Catholics, the beginning of widespread religious tolerance. Skipping ahead to the time of religious freedom following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Catholic priests of Maryland petitioned Pope Pius VI for a bishop and nominated the Jesuit priest John Carroll in 1789 — the first Catholic bishop in America, later to become the first Archbishop. John Carroll’s family was ingrained in the colony’s development. For example, his cousin Charles Carroll was a Revolutionary Patriot and the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In 1791, he wrote “A Prayer for America” for parishioners throughout the diocese. This excerpt shows his dedication to preserving the faithfulness of the nation’s leadership and citizens: “We recommend…to your unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of your most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.”

As Bishop of the Baltimore Diocese, John Carroll implemented much educational progress for both the lay and clergy in the United States. He led the founding of Georgetown as the first Catholic university, with classes beginning in 1791 under the guidance of Robert Plunkett as the university’s president. Among many other initiatives, Bishop John Carroll organized the first diocesan synod in the United States and oversaw the creation of the nation’s first cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. Recognized for his leadership and vision, he was appointed the first Archbishop of Baltimore by Pope Pius VII, also overseeing the dioceses of Boston, New York, Bardstown, and Philadelphia.

From the 1700s to the present day, Maryland has been a site of many inaugural Catholic events and milestones. The figures who contributed to its initial settlement and growth were influential in setting the stage for the expansion of Catholicism — in the United States and beyond. Let us remember and appreciate its centrality to our nation’s Catholic foundation.

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