Catholicism in America dates back to 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to the New World on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria (actually La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción or The Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception). A little more than 70 years after the Catholic explorer disembarked from the ship named for the mother of Jesus, his countrymen founded a settlement at St. Augustine in Florida.
It would be four more decades before the English arrived at Jamestown, followed thirteen years later by the famous landing in Plymouth. Most adults in America are aware of — or used to be aware of — the courageous pilgrims who fled religious persecution in England only to suffer great hardships in America. We trace the wonderful American tradition of Thanksgiving back to these early Christians who, despite their hardships, could only express gratitude to God the Father for all they’d been given.
But there is another group of pilgrims in early America with which most of us are less familiar — one which was also a result of religious intolerance in England.
As Catholics in the United States, we would do well to remember this chapter in our nation’s history, especially as we see our religious freedom again under attack.
On March 25, 1664, the Ark and the Dove — ships commissioned by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic who found favor with the English crown — arrived on a small patch of land that would become known as St. Clement’s Island. There, Father Andrew White, S.J. celebrated the first Holy Mass in the English colonies on land granted to George Calvert (Lord Baltimore’s given name) by King Charles. The land north of the Potomac River was named Terrae Mariae, or “Mary’s Land,” after the wife of King Charles, Henrietta Marie.
How the capital of Maryland became Baltimore after this history becomes clear, then, as does its selection as the first Catholic See in 1789. Calvert, who renounced his Royal appointment but died before he could ever see the land granted him, insisted that the governance of the land include religious toleration as a tenet — and it became first English colony to adopt this social virtue. The colony itself would actually see a great deal of fighting over religion, and a renewal of anti-Catholic bigotry in the years hence. Calvert’s followers settled a bit further up the Potomac at St. Mary’s City, which was later attacked and destroyed, and now is a national historical site with archaeological recovery underway.
It is because of this fascinating history that Human Life International chose Maryland’s St. Mary’s County as the starting point of the North American leg of a worldwide pilgrimage of an icon of the Black Madonna. This same history also provides a backdrop for an ironic situation in which we found ourselves. Let me explain.
In our research, St. Mary’s City came up as a potential starting point for the icon’s pilgrimage in North America. We reached out to the administrators of this interesting site, telling them who we were and just a little bit about our idea, and were cordially invited for a visit. After being warmly welcomed by the staff at the site, our team took a walk around the city ruins, which are now being excavated in a careful and deliberate manner. We explained to the staff our desire to invite local Catholics and others who might be interested, and hold a welcoming ceremony for the icon in the St. Mary’s chapel, which has recently been rebuilt based on educated guesses (there were no architectural plans or pictures) and the existing foundation. They were very supportive, volunteering in between anecdotes of their Jesuit educational background that although the chapel would not be consecrated due to its being part of a public project, religious ceremonies like baptisms had been held at the chapel, and that the local archbishop had visited and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Maybe he should be invited? Maybe some other political and media luminaries should be invited? We didn’t see any need for politicians to be involved, but we could figure that out later.
This is when it got interesting. We followed up a few days later with an official request for the event via email with a little more detail on the pilgrimage itself, including its pro-life intention. Since we’d previously sent them information on the pilgrimage and who we were, we didn’t think this would change the equation, but we were wrong. The reply we received was written in a very different tone than we expected given our previous communications, and we were told that the event could not be held because of the “separation of Church and State.”
You read that right. The administrator of the place that bills itself as the home of “religious toleration” in the U.S., after freely offering that religious ceremonies had already been held on the site, and after offering to invite the archbishop and local politicians, rejected our request explicitly on religious grounds. When we followed up with a note expressing our confusion, reminding them that our event would have no political dimension, and asking for the bylaws on which their decision was based, we of course received no reply.
The question of why an irony-blind administrator thought that our particular event was a step too far is a question that will likely never be answered. But is this the new Saint Mary’s City? Are pilgrims — Catholic pilgrims who venerate the “Saint Mary” for whom their project is named — now no longer welcome?
Blessedly, the story did not end there. While driving up to St. Mary’s City, our team noticed a sign pointing toward “St. Clement’s Island, site of the…” but were driving too fast to read it. They had a little extra time so they turned around and are we glad they did. What our team found was a charming and informative museum on the banks of the inlet that faces the island, and even a water taxi that will take you to the site of the first Catholic Mass in the English colonies. The museum staff was very professional and generous, and while they did not seem to have any noticeable religious motivation, they were helpful in coordinating some aspects of what would be a fairly involved event. And it gets better.
Next to the museum facing the island is a patch of grass in which is set a lovely statue of Our Lady of Light. Our team knew they’d found our location! The owners of the private property where the statue stands, as it turns out, are some of the most gracious hosts we’ve ever met, and are stalwart pro-lifers. By the time the welcoming event had concluded on August 24th, we were speechless at the warmth and hospitality we’d received, which was of course ultimately a gift to the Blessed Mother and her Son.
Now, we shouldn’t exaggerate. Being turned away from a location — however absurd the reasoning — does not put our little band of pro-life stalwarts on par with the original Catholic pilgrims who risked everything for religious freedom. Catholics in America are not yet — not yet — facing the sort of oppression that English Catholics faced in the 17th century. But it was another small reminder of the struggle we’re in; people of faith can be turned away for nonsensical reasoning, and that’s just how business is done. No further explanation is thought necessary, possibly because no honest explanation would suffice.
The other, and much more memorable, lesson to be learned is that kind hospitality is the mark of joyful Catholics living the faith. It is still possible for Catholics and non-Catholics to work together when bigotry is not part of the equation. The event was a dazzling success, primarily due to the local sodality and a small group of especially generous Catholics with a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Faithful Catholics anywhere around Washington, D.C., or the central East coast would do very well in this era of growing State-level anti-Catholic bigotry to take a day and make a pilgrimage of their own to St. Clement’s Island. The folks of St. Mary’s County will be very happy to welcome you, no matter if you’re Catholic or of any other faith.