Oldest U.S. Catholic parish celebrates 375 years
St. Ignatius in Port Tobacco woven into fabric of Maryland history
The oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in the United States will be celebrating its 375th anniversary this year with a host of community events.
“For the 375th anniversary year, we’re trying to celebrate our history over the course of the year, through social, spiritual, community-oriented events. We want it to be a parish oriented event, but we also want the community to be aware of our history,” said Brenda Mudd, chairwoman of the anniversary committee for St. Ignatius Church/ St. Thomas Manor in Port Tobacco.
The parish’s founding dates back to the mission settlement of Chapel Point in 1641, by Father Andrew White, a missionary of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit, an order within the Catholic Church.
White wished to minister to the local Piscataway and Potobago Native American communities, but at that time, the government of Great Britain suppressed Catholics, said the Rev. Thomas Clifford, pastor of St. Ignatius and Jesuit.
Leonard Calvert, governor of the province of Mar yland, welcomed religious dissidents — particularly
Catholics — and allowed the Jesuits to settle in Maryland not as church men but as gentlemen, but with the understanding that they would minister, Clifford said.
“He was Catholic-leaning although he didn’t publicly espouse Catholicism,” Clifford said.
The Jesuits filed claim for 4,000 acres of land, but their effort was disrupted in 1645 when White and fellow Jesuit Thomas Copley were seized by Virginian colonists and sent to London in chains for trial.
At the time, the English Parliament was at war with King Charles I, who was seen as sympathetic to Catholics. As a result, the parliamentary forces stirred anti-Catholic sentiment.
White and Copley were eventually acquitted, and Copley returned to Maryland. The land claim was completed in the name of a gentleman, Thomas Matthews, who transferred the property to the Jesuits in 1662, the year the English monarchy was restored. Since then, the site has been continually in use by the Catholic Church, Clifford said.
“Thomas Matthews was the name of the attorney in whose name we claimed the property. We couldn’t claim it in 1649, the year Charles [I] was beheaded, so we claimed it in the name of a third party,” Clifford said. “Once we got clear title, in 1662, after the restoration of the monarchy, we claimed it in the name of the Jesuits, we’ve been here ever since ... serving the people of Charles County and Southern Maryland.”
A manor house was added to the site in 1741, and it was there that John Carroll was invested as the first Catholic bishop of the United States of America in 1794.
“The manor house, which was where the Jesuits lived, served all of Charles County and for a while Prince George’s, all the way down to Virginia and up into Pennsylvania occasionally, and operated from here,” Clifford said.
A church was added to the site in 1798. In 1866, a fire gutted most of the church and manor house. The church and manor were rebuilt and rededicated in 1868, and the current buildings date from that time, Clifford said.
The year-long celebration kicks off July 30 with a 5 p.m. Mass, followed by an educational program in which members of the Piscataway Indian Tribe will begin the process of building a traditional dwelling — a “long house” or traditional house — on the grounds.
“The Piscataway and St. Ignatius have a long history together,” Clifford said.
Beginning at 1 p.m. Sept. 24, the church will host a lecture series on the role of Catholicism and religious persecution and tolerance in the early history of Maryland, with R. Emmett Curran, emeritus professor at Georgetown University and author of “Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 15741783” and Beatriz Hardy, dean of libraries and instructional resources at Salisbury University and author of “Papists in a Protestant Age: The Catholic Gentry and Community in Maryland, 16891776.”
Additional events are planned for the following year, with the exact schedule yet to be determined.
“I think people will learn a lot,” Clifford said. “I’m hoping, as a pastor, that people will become interested in this church, but as an historian, I’m also interested in people having an accurate understanding of our history.”
Above, St. Ignatius Catholic Church, built in 1798, sits on a site first claimed by the Catholic Society of Jesus in 1641 as part of their mission work with local American Indian tribes. Below, the cemetery behind St. Ignatius Church looks out over the Port Tobacco River. It was relocated uphill following the U.S. Civil War.
The Rev. Thomas Clifford, pastor of St. Ignatius Church, looks at the inscription on the cornerstone of the church, dating its construction to 1798.