Catholics in Maryland

Draft posted: 2019-02-09

On the ground from the beginning

Colonial Maryland, like its Chesapeake neighbor Virginia, was marked by slavery, but also by its distinction as a Catholic haven in British North America. George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had been raised a Catholic, but he converted to the Church of England to pursue a life of service to King James. But, Calvert's conversion was half-hearted and he eventually reverted to Catholicism, and in the 1620s, he took up his long-held dream of helping to colonize North America with his fellow-Catholics in mind. He began by investing in an emerging Catholic colony in Newfoundland, but finding it inhospitable he set his sights on the Chesapeake. After visiting Virginia in 1629, Calvert pressed on to secure the necessary permissions from the Crown and the Privy Council to draw up a charter for Maryland. In 1631 the Privy Council embarked on the work of drawing up a charter that would grant Calvert absolute rule over the land between the Delaware Bay and the Potomac River. While charter was in preparation George Calvert died (1632), but his twenty-six year-old son, Cecil, took up his work. The younger Lord Baltimore was assisted in by Andrew White, SJ, who had been an advisor to George Calvert in planning and publicizing the venture since 1628.1

Andrew White's relationship with the Calverts assured that the English Jesuits would play a major role in the establishment of Catholic life in Maryland. In 1633, White set sail from England as one of the province's original Adventurers, leading British who were responsible for guiding expeditions of people with fewer means to populate the colony. White undertook his voyage on the Ark and Dove, bringing 26 men with him to support his mission to Christianize the territory. White's group was joined by other wealthy Adventurers and their accompanying Settlers, who were most often Protestant indentured servants. In March 1634, the vessels landed on an island in the lower Potomac, and from that spot, the Maryland Catholic community and the Society of Jesus grew up together in Lord Baltimore's North American colony.2

White's role in publicizing and recruiting colonists for the voyage ensured that he and the English Jesuits shared the interests of the wealthy Adventures who were responsible for creating the colonial community from the beginning. Despite their missionary aims for their interaction with the local native communities, the Jesuits found themselves aligned with the Catholic planter class who settled the area, rather than the burgeoning population of Protestant indentured servants who came to do the work of building the colony.

Thus, in the late 1630s, just as every other wealthy Adventurer did, the Jesuits undertook the process of claiming their land from Lord Baltimore. This early crew, Andrew White, John Altham (aka Gravenor), Thomas Copley, and Ferdinand Pulton, filed their claims as individuals rather than as an order because English, and hence Maryland, did not recognize the right of a religious order of corporate body to own property. Given that Lord Baltimore resisted the Jesuits' efforts to hold their land in common, eventually, they transferred the land rights to a layperson, Cuthbert Fenwick, to hold in trust for the order. In doing so they set into motion the process that resulted in the establishment of the first two Jesuit plantations in Southern Maryland: St. Inigoe's Manor and St. Thomas's Manor.3

Anti-Catholicism and the Penal Period

Despite the original design that Maryland would be a place where Catholics could comfortably settle, the province was subject to continual pressures and resistance from the Anglican majority. The Jesuits weathered these challenges, firm in their understanding of Lord Baltimore's intent for the settlement. In 1645 Baltimore and Maryland Catholics withstood a political challenge from Protestants, that left some priests to die in hiding in Virginia and resulted in White and Copley being arrested and shipped back to England. By 1647, Baltimore regained his position of power and Copley was able to return to Maryland. But, the scare resulted in Lord Baltimore convincing the General Assembly in 1649 to pass legislation that codified toleration of all Christians, regardless of denominational allegiance.4 The Act Concerning Religion stated:

...whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth upon any occasion of offence otherwise in a reproachfull manner or way declare call or denominate any person or persons whatsoever inhabiting, residing, traficking, trading or comercing within this province or within any ports, harbours, creeks or havens to the same belonging, an Heretick, Schismatick, Idolator, Puritan, Independent Presbyterian, Antenomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Seperatist, Popish Priest, Jesuit, Jesuited Papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist or any other name or term in a reproachful manner relating to matters of Religion shall for every such offence foreit and lose the sum of ten shillings Sterling or the value thereof to be levied on the goods and chattels of every such offender and offenders...5

Even with principles of religious toleration codified in colonial law and despite the fact that Catholics made up only 10 percent of the population, an ongoing struggle took place over the rightful place of Catholics in public life, especially after a regime change in 1692 resulted in the establishment of the Anglican Church in Maryland. Between 1692 and start of the Revolutionary war, a time often referred to as the "Penal Period," the Maryland General Assembly imposed of a number of regulations threatened Catholics' ability to openly practice their religion. Time and again, these laws put them in a position where they needed to petition the government to secure their civil rights. The Jesuits took the lead in framing these petitions, and in doing so, affirmed their desire to work within the boundaries of the political system while maintaining their commitment to the faithful practice of their religion.6 The clergy was joined in this stand by a central group of wealthy Catholic lay people, such as the Carroll, Darnall, Digges, Neale, Fenwick, and Sewall families, who held positions of prominence in Maryland political and commercial life. For example, Charles Carroll, the Settler, who accumulated nearly 50,000 acres of land between 1688 and his death in 1720, and his nephews were consistent and vocal defenders of the faith.7

Beginning in 1704, with the Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery, priests were restricted from publicly performing important pastoral duties in the colony, including saying mass, converting a Protestant, or baptizing a child whose parents were not both Catholic. As a result, they had to undertake most of their duties within the confines of private home chapels. The second effect of these penal laws was that the Jesuits took up practices common to upstart Protestant ministers, traversing their region as circuit riders attending to their communicants. But, even with these hardships, the Catholic community in Maryland was well-served and demonstrated high rates of participation in the sacraments and elements of regular devotion.8

Colonial penal laws were not simply confined to limiting the ability of Catholics to practice their faith. There were also a series of efforts to restrict Catholics from fully participating in Maryland political life. Concerned that Catholics were devoted to the Stuarts, in 1716 the General Assembly barred Catholics who refused to swear an oath denouncing the Doctrine of Transubstantiation from holding public office. Over the next several years, Catholics managed to fight off the passage of a number of laws that threatened them with deportation if they challenged the English identity of the colony, in effect turning over settled Maryland law to embrace the more stringent approach of English law. Arguing that Maryland had its own important tradition of toleration, Catholics like Peter Atwood, SJ, attempted to talk the Assembly down from this drastic approach. In the end, the Upper House rejected the measure. Atwood's framing of Maryland having a separate and superior approach to toleration than England at large provide an important model for Catholics troubled by conflicts over property and civil rights as they lobbied the General Assembly for consideration through the Eighteenth Century. Often times they were successful in tempering anti-Catholic legislative moves, but in 1756 in the midst of the French and Indian War they failed to turn back the imposition of a property tax that was double that assessed of Protestants.9 Despite these challenges, prominent Catholics regularly argued that religious freedom was a cornerstone of political and civil rights in Maryland. Eventually, those principles lead them to embrace the revolutionary break from England in favor of Marylanders governing themselves based on the principles on which the colony was founded.

Jesuit Suppression, an American Diocese, and a Corporation

The experience of sustaining a Catholic minority in an environment dominated by Protestants certainly offered challenges for the Jesuit missionaries in Maryland, but they also had to contend with difficulties posed by political issues with the Vatican. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus, effectively dissolving it for a time. As a result, the English Jesuits who served the mission in Maryland were rendered secular clergy who fell under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicar in London. This distant and temporary leadership was never a practical solution for the clergy in Maryland in the years before the Revolutionary War. After the war, it was a completely untenable situation. In 1782, John Carroll, himself a former Jesuit, emerged as the clear leader of the local clergy serving in increasingly significant roles, until in April 1789 the clergy in the US elected him Bishop, a decision that was then affirmed by Pope Pius VI.10

Under Bishop Carroll's leadership during the early years of the new nation, the former-Jesuits came together to fully secure their property rights. Since religious bodies had been prohibited from owning land since the establishment of the colony under Lord Baltimore, the Jesuit estates had been owned and transmitted between individuals over their 150 years of ownership. In the 1780s, Carroll and the other former Jesuits moved to form a structure to manage their holdings. Formally chartered with the Maryland legislature in 1793, the formation of Corporation of Roman Catholic Clerymen allowed them to hold their property, including their enslaved property, in common, rather than as individuals, which was more in keeping with their original vows of poverty.11 Henceforth, this corporation served as decision making body on all questions of temporal affairs for the Jesuits, including the disposition of their enslaved property.


  1. Robert Emmett Curran, Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574-1783 (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014) 21-32.
  2. Curran (2014) 32-35. Narrating the voyage and the colonists first encounters in Maryland, White left a journal that made clear his focus was on engagement with the Native American communities in the area: White, Andrew. A Briefe Relation of the Voyage Unto Maryland (1634). Vol. 552. THE MARYLAND HALL OF RECORDS 350th Anniversary Document Series. Annapolis, MD: Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, 1984.
  3. Gerald P. Fogarty, "Property and Religious Liberty in Colonial Maryland Catholic Thought," The Catholic Historical Review 72, no. 4 (1986): 377-380. Tricia T. Pyne, "The Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century British America: Catholic Perceptions of Their Role in Colonial Society," U.S. Catholic Historian 15, no. 2 (1997): 3-5.
  4. Fogarty, 381.
  5. Papenfuse, Edward, and Gerald W Johnson. "An Act Concerning Religion, April 21, 1649: An Interpretation and Tribute to the Citizen Legislators of Maryland," 1999.
  6. Pyne, Tricia T. "The Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century British America: Catholic Perceptions of Their Role in Colonial Society." U.S. Catholic Historian 15, no. 2 (1997): 1–14, and Maura Jane Farrelly, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012) 136-187.
  7. Hoffman, Ronald. "‘Marylando-Hibernus’: Charles Carroll the Settler, 1660-1720." The William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 2 (1988): 208–36.
  8. Pyne, Tricia T. "Ritual and Practice in the Maryland Catholic Community, 1634-1776." U.S. Catholic Historian 26, no. 2 (2008): 21-24, and Maura Jane Farrelly, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012) 188-196.
  9. Maura Jane Farrelly, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity (Oxford University Press, USA, 2012) 196-218, and Fogarty, Gerald P. "Property and Religious Liberty in Colonial Maryland Catholic Thought." The Catholic Historical Review 72, no. 4 (1986): 573–600.
  10. Note on Carroll's appointment, perhaps: O’Donnell, Catherine. "John Carroll and the Origins of an American Catholic Church, 1783–1815." The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 1 (2011): 101–26.
  11. "Charter of Incorporation by General Assembly of Maryland-Act of 1792," Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, Corporation RCC-Legislative Acts [90 Z4-10, 12]., 01/01/1792-12/31/1918 (Box: 23, Folder: 18) Fogarty, Gerald P. "Property and Religious Liberty in Colonial Maryland Catholic Thought." The Catholic Historical Review 72, no. 4 (1986): 600.