Summer Excursions: Day Trips to the Local Roots of Our Faith
As residents of the Washington metropolitan area, we are blessed to live in a place that is a destination for travelers from across the United States and around the world. These tourists can see the U.S. Capitol and White House and visit landmarks related to our nation’s founders and those who preserved our Union and liberty, including the Washington Monument and memorials honoring presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Visitors and residents alike can also visit local landmarks to our Catholic faith, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, and the Church of Washington’s Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.
People also have the added blessing of being able to take day trips to heritage sites in Southern Maryland which played critical roles not only in planting our Catholic faith in the United States, but also in the establishment of religious liberty for all people as a cornerstone of our American democracy. Among these are Saint Clement’s Island, Historic Saint Mary’s City, and Saint Ignatius Church at Chapel Point in Port Tobacco.
This coming October, we will celebrate a special Mass at Saint Ignatius to mark the 375th anniversary of the historic founding of the parish by Father Andrew White, S.J. Two summers ago, when the Archdiocese of Washington marked its 75th anniversary in 2014, I had the privilege of celebrating Masses at Saint Clement’s Island and the Brick Chapel in Saint Mary’s City.
Now a 62-acre state park, Saint Clement’s Island is where colonists from England first made landfall in Maryland on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, 1634, after a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean on the ships the Ark and the Dove. When they went ashore, Father White offered the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies.
When I celebrated the Eucharist on Saint Clement’s Island in 2014, in a tent set up near a 40-foot white cross erected to commemorate that historic Mass there, I said we had come to that same spot also to celebrate Mass to recognize and pay homage to our roots and our Catholic heritage, which began in this corner of the world. The legacy of Father White and those other intrepid pioneers who came to establish Maryland as a haven for religious toleration and freedom of conscience is ours. Like those first Maryland settlers did, we concluded the Mass by praying the Litany of the Holy Cross, reminding us that, like those who have gone before us in the faith, we find our identity and our strength at the foot of the cross, the sign of Jesus’s loving sacrifice which harkens to his resurrection and promise of new life.
Travelers can start their excursion at the Saint Clement’s Island Museum in Colton’s Point, which offers a film, mural and exhibits about that historic landing in Maryland. On weekends from June through September, people can ride a water taxi from a dock near the museum that will take them to the island itself.
Another remarkable place for a day trip is Historic Saint Mary’s City, the site of the first colonial settlement and capital. There visitors can see a living history area and also go aboard a replica of the Dove docked at the shore. As you stand on deck, you are given a reminder of that journey taken by those first Catholic settlers, along with people of other faiths, who crossed an ocean together in the belief of the importance of religious freedom, a journey that we their descendants in the faith should continue today.
In 1667, a Brick Chapel was built in Saint Mary’s City, but in 1704, when the leadership had changed and Catholics were no longer allowed to celebrate their faith in public, the chapel was permanently locked by the sheriff of Saint Mary’s County on order of the royal governor.
The chapel was subsequently torn down. However, in 2009, I had the privilege of participating in the official opening of a reconstructed Brick Chapel, helping to push open the door after it was ceremoniously unlocked by the modern-day sheriff. Today, the Brick Chapel stands not only as a reminder of our right to religious liberty, but also a reminder that freedom is fragile, and we must remain vigilant in defending it.
When I celebrated Mass there for our archdiocese’s 75th anniversary, I noted that there are sacred spaces that are truly on earth our Father’s house. The land surrounding the Brick Chapel is also holy ground, for many of Maryland’s first Catholics were buried there. The religious freedom that they established there through their faith and vision is our birthright, to cherish and protect as Catholics and Americans.