Last week in his blog, Cardinal Donal Wuerl marked the 75th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Washington, and paid tribute to part of Catholic American history that many may not know:
We build on a foundation that began on the first Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit helped guide the Apostles to heed Jesus’ call to be his witnesses and proclaim his Good News to the world. We build on the groundwork that was laid when Catholic settlers first brought the faith to our region of the world and also on the foundation of Pope Pius XII’s establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1939.
This weekend, June 28th and 29th, I will celebrate two 75th anniversary Masses for the Church of Washington that honor these roots of our Catholic faith. Today, we will rejoice with a Eucharistic celebration at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in Saint Mary’s City, Maryland. Tomorrow, we will celebrate Mass on Saint Clement’s Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies 380 years ago.
On that day, March 25, in 1634, the English colonists who were traveling on the Ark and the Dove, seeking a new life in the Americas, had made landfall at an island on the Potomac that they named after Saint Clement. Father White, whom we now remember as “the Apostle of Maryland,” later gave a report of that momentous day:
“On the day of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Virgin Mary in the year 1634, we celebrated Mass for the first time, on this island. This had never been done before in this part of the world… 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 Savior, while the litany of the holy cross was chanted humbly on our bended knees, with great emotion of soul.”
Lord Baltimore, a Catholic nobleman from England, founded the Maryland colony on the ideals of freedom of conscience and worship, and historians today regard Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States. Catholics at Maryland’s first capital, Saint Mary’s City, built the Brick Chapel there circa 1667, which stood as a visible symbol of their religious freedom. But that right proved to be fragile when others took power. In 1704, the royal governor ordered that the doors of the chapel be locked, and it was later dismantled, brick by brick, at a time when Catholics could not worship in public in Maryland.
In 2009, I participated in a ceremony at Saint Mary’s City and helped push open the doors of the reconstructed Brick Chapel there, which once again stands as a sign of Maryland’s legacy of religious freedom. Archaeologists have discovered that the site is surrounded by the graves of pioneer Catholics who helped plant our faith in Maryland.
As our family of faith celebrates the Eucharist at Saint Mary’s City and Saint Clement’s Island, we will pray for and honor our ancestors in the faith who first planted the cross in Maryland and established the ideal of religious freedom that we cherish today as Americans and as people of faith. Like the Apostles in the upper room, and like those pioneer colonists, we are called to be Jesus’s witnesses. In doing so, we honor the legacy of our ancestors in the faith, as we prepare to share our great inheritance, our Catholic faith, with generations to come.
Read more of his blog, “Seek First the Kingdom.”