Matthew Green sent us the following guest submission. Enjoy!
Historic St. Mary’s City: A Journey Into Our Past to Reflect on Our Present
“Consider the ancient generations and see:
who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame?
Or who ever persevered in the fear of the Lord and was forsaken?
Or who ever called upon him and was overlooked?” Sirach 2: 10
This is probably one of my most favorite Bible verses. It is particularly suitable for this time in Catholic history. Perseverance is a hallmark of the spiritual life. It was with this reality in mind that I took a trip to Historic St. Mary’s City. Established in 1634, it was designed to be place where English Catholics could worship in peace and it became the first settlement in the colony of Maryland.
On my way down from the DC suburbs, I stopped for mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne (Maryland’s second settlement), about a half hour north of St. Mary’s City. According to the Parish website, the congregation was founded in 1640 with the present church having been built in 1731, one year before George Washington was born. The property is unique because it has a brick manor house. There is also a unique brick octagon-shaped addition to the Church made in the period before the American Revolution. The inside of the Church reminds one of a congregational church one would find in New England with a white-washed interior and boxed pews. It was charming and a sense of connection to the past was evident.
When the liturgy was completed, I continued to Historic St. Mary’s City. While there are costumed historians roaming around the site like in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, this site had a very different feel. Whereas Colonial Williamsburg has rebuilt all the colonial structures on their original foundations, only a handful of buildings are rebuilt at Historic St. Mary’s City, most notably the Statehouse and the Chapel. Where there are not reconstructed buildings, open fields with tall grass pervade. I liked it that way. It facilitated an environment of reflection on what had once been there without needless distraction.
My first stop was to the Catholic chapel. On the way, the visitor passes by a field where most of those early colonists were buried (including at least one direct ancestor of mine, Thomas Greene, who was the second governor of the colony). They may have been buried with wooden grave markers but since that time those grave markers have disintegrated so none of the graves are marked, as if to make all the dead equal in the eyes of God regardless of their social class. The building itself looks like some of the Jesuit Churches that one may find in Europe (think of the Church of the Gesu in Rome or St. Charles Borromeo in Antwerp). The original Church was built in 1667 but was vandalized in 1669 and the colonial government (heavily dominated by Protestants by this time) shut it down in 1704 forcing the Jesuits to move downriver to St. Inigoes.
Walking into the reconstructed chapel was a very moving experience. Sitting on a bench I prayed three Hail Mary’s for the repose of the souls of my ancestors as well as all those buried in the field next to the Church. As I reflected, I came to realize that these colonists were trailblazers. Not only did they move to the edge of the known world to establish a new colony, but they also established a new Church in a part of the world that had thus far proven to be hostile to the Catholic faith. Their efforts help lay the foundation for the Catholic Church in the future United States. Thanks in part to their efforts, the United States has more Catholics than any other country on earth with the exceptions of Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. What an extraordinary success story!
Perhaps the most memorable moments from that trip were the little things that I learned about the early settlement. For example, archaeologists on the site have found rosary beads and religious medals with images of Saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier as well as Blessed Aloysius Gonzaga (Gonzaga was not canonized until the eighteenth century). They tell us that that the colonists’ faith and our faith are one and the same. Many people today still pray the rosary or wear religious medals and medallions. But Catholics back then and today share more than that. We all share a common devotion to God and the Church and they, like us, experienced setbacks.
And their setbacks were not negligible. They had to deal with very high death rates in the first years of settlement, the hostility of their Protestant neighbors, and instability back in England with Charles I’s execution in 1649 and James II’s exile in 1688. Despite these travails they “persevered in fear of the Lord” and the Lord did not forsake them. In this time of corruption and controversy in our Church that goes from the very bottom to the very top, let us be trailblazers for God like those original Catholic colonists, pushing the limits of our detachment, prayer and constructive action for the sake of the Gospel and the wellbeing of the Church. We may not be called to the edge of the world like they were, but by going where He wants us to go, we will find His peace during this difficult time period in the Church. Amen.
The Catholic Chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City. The field where the original colonists are buried is visible to the right of the walkway.