The Compton Bassett Chapel and the House Churches of Early Christianity
The original Compton Bassett house and estate, built by some estimates as early as 1700 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, is just one of many historic places we are fortunate to have in this area. For Catholics, however, the chapel on the property has even greater significance and, although it was built later, it has a spiritual legacy going back to the beginning of the faith.
Today, the buildings we call churches are the ordinary places where Christians gather for worship and fellowship, and every Catholic church has been consecrated for that purpose. But 2,000 years ago, followers of Jesus did not meet in dedicated church buildings. Instead, they met in family homes or wherever they could safely assemble and worship – starting with the Upper Room where the Eucharist was inaugurated at the Last Supper, the Risen Christ appeared, and where the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost – as described throughout the New Testament and early Church writings (see Acts 2:1-4, 46, 28:30; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2). San Clemente in Rome, for example, likely started as a house church. A private home in Dura-Europos, Syria, is known to have been a house church in the third century. As the resting places of the faithful departed, including many martyrs, the catacombs in Rome also were used at times for purposes of worship.
Early Christians initially met in these private places simply because there were as yet no dedicated church buildings, but quickly there was another reason – persecution or other hostility that prevented public worship. Not until the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century did dedicated churches openly arise and the use of house churches largely cease because there was then no need for them.
Sadly, however, persecution and anti-Catholic prejudice have proven to be a constant in the life of the Church, even here in our area. The Compton Bassett Chapel itself returned to that original practice of meeting in private house churches and the catacombs because at the time, Catholic public worship was not allowed.
Over the years, the old chapel building fell under disrepair and suffered structural damage. But restoration and preservation efforts have now saved this important landmark which can help people better appreciate the heritage of the Catholic faith in America and the precarious state of our religious freedoms.
As we remember Christ’s Passion, Lent is a good time to recall also how the Church throughout history has known oppression and for us to be vigilant in the protection of our religious liberties. During this season too, let us pray in solidarity with those Christians today in the Middle East and elsewhere who experience in their lives their own personal Via Crucis of persecution.