Saint Ignatius Parish at Chapel Point and 375 Years of Making a Catholic Impact
Saint Ignatius Parish in Chapel Point is the oldest Catholic parish in continuous service in the United States. Some families there have roots in colonial times, and even to the native peoples that predated the arrival of the original English settlers in 1634.
Seven years after he landed with those pioneers aboard the Ark and the Dove, Jesuit Father Andrew White, known as the “Apostle of Maryland,” built a wooden chapel near the shore of the Port Tobacco River. He named the site Chapel Point, and the small house of God he erected in 1641 was named after the founder of the Society of Jesus, whose religious order helped spread the faith to Asia and throughout the Americas, including own area.
To mark this 375th anniversary of Saint Ignatius Parish, yesterday I celebrated a special Mass in the church which overlooks the river. As we gave thanks to God, the historic arrival of another famous Jesuit to these shores came to mind – Pope Francis. He reminded us during his visit here last year that we are heirs to a bold missionary spirit and are “indebted to a tradition, a chain of witnesses who have made it possible for the good news of the Gospel to be, in every generation, both ‘good’ and ‘news.’”
Included in that chain of witnesses is the missionary Father White, who was drawn to the place because he wanted to evangelize the Piscataway people. Upon learning their language, he shared with them the Good News of Jesus Christ and even wrote a catechism in their language. Today, a window above the church’s choir loft depicts the Jesuit priest baptizing the king and queen. Many members of the native community followed suit and converted, and nearly four centuries later, some of their descendants continue to worship in that very church. Fittingly, members of the Piscataway people participated in the Mass in July on the eve of the feast day of Saint Ignatius that kicked off the parish’s year-long celebration of its 375th anniversary.
History shows how the faith planted at Saint Ignatius Parish by the Apostle of Maryland bore abundant fruit. In time, Chapel Point would become the residence of other Jesuits who came to this region. From their Saint Thomas Manor at Chapel Point, they set out on horseback to evangelize and bring the sacraments to Catholics in present-day Charles County and parts of Prince George’s County, and by boat to northern Virginia. Today, the current pastor of Saint Ignatius Parish, Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, continues his order’s legacy of serving the Gospel in that area.
By the early 1700s, there were nearly 3,000 Catholics in Maryland and despite periods of severe oppression, as of 1790, there were about 16,000 Catholics living in the area. Today, the Church of Washington includes over 620,000 Catholics, a family of faith consisting of people from many diverse lands, backgrounds and ages who speak many different languages but are united in one faith and the call to be Jesus’ disciples and share his Good News.
Throughout that time, the Catholic impact on this region and this nation has been tremendous and indispensable to building a free, equal, just and prosperous community and country. From the founding of the nation to the building of the capital and the enactment of just laws, as well as the education and care of the people, Catholics made their mark.
Over the years, Catholic ministries, agencies and everyday men and women have made a profound difference in the lives of millions of our sisters and brothers in the human family. Today, in addition to schools, universities, hospitals and clinics, the Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in this area. Each year, more than 120,000 people rely on Catholic Charities for housing, food, job training, immigration assistance, legal aid, help for vulnerable pregnant women and unwed mothers, care for the elderly, and more. Moreover, the Catholic voice has long had significant influence on the social legislation of our nation, especially laws pertaining to social justice and civil rights.
The 375th anniversary of Saint Ignatius Parish is a time to remember the legacy of the missionaries who planted the Catholic faith in this part of the New World and helped the Gospel to spread and grow in the hearts of the people. From those small beginnings, the service that the Catholic faithful rendered became a cornerstone of the American experience. Now it is our turn, to be missionary disciples in today’s world, and continue that work.