American Jesuits, Buried and Brought Back, Part II: The Maryland Plantation Jesuits

This is Part II of a three-part story. The first installment, "French Jesuits in New Orleans," is available here

In spite of its rich missionary history with its roots in Spain and France, the American Catholic church traditionally traces its birthday to the colonial period during which the Arc and the Dove, which landed at St. Mary’s, between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, in March 1634. They were under the auspices of the First Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, who had died two years before; his son Cecilius, who succeeded him as Lord Baltimore, along with Andrew White, completed the planning.

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From the beginning the founders insisted on religious freedom, welcomed all Christians and tacitly admitted Jews. Two Jesuits, Andrew White and John Altham, plus many Catholics, were on board, and White celebrated the first Mass in the British colonies. Depending on the shifts of political power in England between the Puritans and Lord Baltimore, religious freedom prevailed. By 1670 there were about 20,000 colonists in Maryland, the main industry was agriculture and tobacco was the principal crop. Under Charles Calvert, the grandson of the founder, who became proprietor in 1675, peace prevailed, but, when the “glorious” Revolution of 1688 in England restored the monarchy, Maryland became a royal colony, the assembly, under a new governor, abolished the practice of religious toleration and established the Anglican church. In 1704 Catholics were forbidden to publicly practice their religion, and subsequent laws forbade Catholics to vote or hold government office, and decreed that priests could have their property taken from them. Nevertheless the Queen allowed Catholics to worship privately, so a network of private chapels were set up on Jesuit farms and estates in Maryland.

With the exception of missionaries on the frontier and a fair number of “rogue” priests, traveling through the colonies without any formal jurisdiction, Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania were the America Catholic church, served by roughly 20 Jesuits, mostly members of the English province under the jurisdiction of an English bishop. Though Maryland had a reputation at one time for religious freedom, it was more realized in Penn’s colony.

Jesuit missionary work in Pennsylvania began in the 1720s with Fr. Joseph Greaton, S.J. In the Philadelphia area the first Catholic church was St. Thomas the Apostle, a Jesuit church in Chester Heights, founded in 1729. Then in 1734 Greaton established a chapel which became Old St. Joseph’s Church, the first Catholic Church in the city of Philadelphia itself, just a few blocks from what was later known as Independence Hall. In 1757 there were 1,365 Catholics in Pennsylvania out of a population of 400,000, and by 1765 they had grown to 6000. By then Jesuits had flourished better in Quaker Pennsylvania than in Maryland. Jesuits had built six churches, two in Philadelphia, including St. Mary’s in 1763 just a block away from St. Joseph’s and one in each surrounding city.

The impact of the Suppression on the Maryland Jesuits differed in several ways from the impact on their fellow Jesuits in Europe and Louisiana. The basic patterns were similar: religious men, members of an influential world-wide network offended and alienated their hosts. In Maryland hostility toward Catholicism and anti-Jesuit feelings were often the same. The Protestant landed gentry resented the fact that their Catholic counterparts sent their sons abroad to Jesuit schools in Europe. For the Catholics, aside from home schooling and the short-lived school at Bohemia, that was the only way to preserve the faith of the family heir. To the Protestant this was the Catholic rejection of America itself. As it was, Catholics already made considerable sacrifices in order to stay with the colony and, in fact, often considered moving to somewhere they could practice their faith more openly. But all the 20 or so Catholic priests in the colonies were already bunched together in Maryland. In contrast to the concentration of Jesuits in Maryland, in Europe and its colonies, Suppression meant exile, being shoved onto a boat which would roam the Mediterranean Sea and cities in search of an urban sanctuary.

In all, the ex-Jesuit had four options: become incardinated as a diocesan priest with a host bishop who would accept him; leave the priesthood and seek a new life in marriage or business or labor; join one of the two new religious orders formed to attack former Jesuits, the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Company of the Faith of Jesus, which eventually merged, in hope that the original Society would be restored; or accept the invitation of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. The original degree became valid only when it was promulgated locally by the authority of the bishop. Empress Catherine declared that she would not promulgate the decree, and so gave Jesuits one way to preserve their continuity in White Russia, a recently annexed part of Eastern Poland. Her decision preserved one limb of the Society, as the means by which it inched back through Europe and America as national bodies joined themselves to the Russian province.

The Farms

The Maryland Jesuits all decided to carry on where they were. They lived on and managed plantations, with tobacco as their major crop and with slaves to harvest it. The farms had been acquired in several ways: from the original settlement contract with Lord Baltimore, purchase and bequests — for a total of about 15,000 acres. Unlike the modern parish, they neither begged nor received alms for their sacramental labors: they supported themselves as gentleman farmers. Each farm had a little chapel, where the faithful gathered, and horses for the priest to ride as far as Pennsylvania and sometimes New Jersey or even New York, to say Mass and hear confessions.. Annapolis only had the private chapel in the home of Charles Carroll. At the time of the Suppression the Jesuits had 11 residences or missions: St. Thomas, in Charles County in Southern Maryland, a house still operative today; Newtown and St. Inigoes in St. Mary’s County; White Marsh, in Prince George County; Bohemia, in Cecil County; Deer Creek, in Baltimore (now Hartford) County; Frederick Town in Frederick County. In Pennsylvania, St Joseph’s in Philadelphia, still active and St. Mary’s (now belonging to the diocese); Conewago, in York (now Adams) County; Goshenhoppen, in Berks County; and Lancaster.

The residences were in remote rural districts conducive to farming, and providing secrecy to those who came to pray. Bohemia was also the site of the little school where Bishop John Carroll, listed as “Little Jackie Carroll,” studied before being sent abroad. Frederick became a novitiate in 1833, until the novices were transferred to St. Andrew-on-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1903. Lancaster suffered rapid turnovers in pastors, including some wandering freelancers who gave John Carroll headaches during his administration. On these lands the former Jesuits lived on as they had lived before — with some adjustments. Of their three vows which canonically made them Jesuits, they still lived in poverty, insofar as they did not own their farms individually, but had formed a legal corporation, The Corporation of the Roman Catholic Clergy of Maryland, to preserve their collective ownership and prevent the king of England from absorbing them as other monarchs had done. In addition they were bound to chastity by the church rule of celibacy; but although they owed some sort of obedience to Fr. John Lewis who had been selected as their superior, they were not obliged to obey him by vow. They still, however, considered themselves Jesuits in spirit, but if and when they would recover their old life they did not know.

John Carroll

Although it may not have seemed so at the time, the Suppression of the Society of Jesus was one of the best things to happen to the American Catholic Church. If the church had a “founder” it was John Carroll; but if the Society had not been pulled out from under him when he was a young Jesuit traveling, studying, and teaching in Europe, he most likely would have gone on to become a professor — never the first American bishop. The central question for American Catholics has been from the beginning: to what extent are they Americans or Catholics first? The subsequent struggle has proven that this is an irrelevant question. From John Carroll to John F. Kennedy in 1960, to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom there has been no fundamental contradiction between the two; but from the anti-Catholic penal laws in the Maryland colony to the tar and feathering of missionary John Bapst, S.J., by Know Nothings in Maine in 1854, to the alleged “heresy” of “Americanism” in the late 19th century, to the debate of legalizing abortion in the 21st century, American Catholics have had to hear the voice of American culture and democratic values in one ear and the voice of Rome in the other. Ex-Jesuit John Carroll struggled to reconcile these forces from the beginning.

Contrary to an interpretation which sees the success of the early American church in terms of Carroll’s commitment to the new American doctrine of separation of church and state, Italian historian Luca Codignola interprets the years 1760-1829 as an example of Catholic conservatism in the North Atlantic world. Considered in the context of both the American Revolution and the French Revolution he sees an attitude develop which allowed the church, partly through cooperation with the state, to grow. A combination of devout missionary revivalism and assertive leadership from Pope Pius IX led to a triumphant Rome-centered church. John Carroll’s family, says Codignola, had traditional values: industry, thrift, poor relief through charity and “above all an orderly society ruled by moderate and enlightened government.” While American historians stress Carroll’s “democratic” election as bishop, he says that Roman officials planned ahead, carefully followed events in the colonies and employed diplomatic consultations and other methods used for centuries.

When John Carroll was growing up, a member of one of the richest families in the colonies, there were about 20 Catholic priests, all Jesuits, about a third of whom were native born, the others immigrants, for a Catholic population of over 20,000 in the rural communities of Maryland and Pennsylvania. As the Catholic population increased, the gentry sent their children abroad to recusant (English Catholics who refused to participate in Anglican services) schools at St. Omer and Bruges in Flanders. In 1760 the hostility toward Catholics in the colonies was so deep and widespread that Charles Carroll’s father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis (John Carroll’s uncle), advised his son, who was studying law in London, to settle in Louisiana where Catholics were more welcome. But fortunately his European education had given him a broader vision than that nurtured by his privileged Maryland Catholic plantation upbringing. Convinced that the future of the church and country lay not in the local aristocracy, he joined the “Country” party, which was preparing the way for the American revolution.

His cousin John (1735-1815), son of an Irish successful businessman, studied for two years at the short-lived prep school at Bohemia Manor, then joined his cousin on the ship to St. Omer’s in 1748. Like Charles he read widely and was influenced by Enlightenment ideas spread by French Catholic intellectuals. At the age of 18 he entered the Jesuit order at Watten in the Netherlands. Ordained in 1761 he taught in the English colleges at Liege and Bruges and for two years traveled as a tutor for an aristocrat’s son, concealing his Jesuit identity as news reached him of the step-by-step persecution of the Society. When in 1773 the news of the Suppression reached him at Bruges he was emotionally crushed: “The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death . . .” he wrote in a letter home. A month later Austrian authorities drove the Jesuits from Bruges at bayonet point. But far from dying, he took immediate charge of his life and sailed for home in the spring of 1774. Meanwhile Empress Catherine the Great declined to publish the papal decree eliminating the order. The Russian solution, in the end, preserved the formal continuity of the old Society and eventually would provide a vehicle by which the America Society could receive new recruits and re-connect with the Society worldwide.

John Carroll, now 38, settled in with his mother at their Rock Creek mansion and served as a circuit-riding apostle in Montgomery County and, monthly, in Virginia. In 1776 he accompanied Charles Carroll and Benjamin Franklin on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to Canada to gain French Catholic support for the revolution. After the war, he judged that the aging and aimless plantation Jesuits were in no condition to lead the future American church. In 1783 he called a meeting of the priests at White Marsh Jesuit farm, drew up a constitution and petitioned the pope to appoint a leader. An absolute condition was that the leader must be local, not controlled by a foreign jurisdiction. In 1784 Carroll himself was appointed “Superior of the Mission.” As Jay P. Dolan writes, “ . .. a new political and social order was being born; a new religious environment was taking shape as well. Onto this stage stepped John Carroll, and together with his colleagues among the clergy and laity he began to articulate an understanding of Roman Catholicism that was unique in Western Christendom.”

Their agenda included recognizing the pope as a “spiritual leader,” but they wanted to govern themselves and elect their own bishop. To no-one’s surprise, in 1789 they elected John Carroll. He had already begun to act on his deepest conviction: America had to provide its own priests and needed a local seminary. By 1791 Baltimore had already opened St. Mary’s Seminary, when Carroll opened the doors of Georgetown Academy. Not only did he not describe it as a seminary, but it was an “academy” open to all boys, as young as eight, of any religion. Meanwhile, forced to accept foreign priests, he ordered them to “Americanize” themselves, study the Constitution and follow the “American way of life.” And if there was to be an America church the liturgy should be in English, not Latin. Following this, many parishes adopted a trustee system, wherein the parishioners who rented pews annually elected trustees to run the church’s temporal affairs. In time though, Americanization wobbled: a 1791 priests synod in Baltimore adopted European laws and when Carroll wanted new bishops he himself chose them, sometimes consulting, sometimes not consulting his priests.

Nevertheless the influence of the ex-Jesuits and the reconstructed Society of Jesus on the America church during the first decades of the 19th century was substantial. The Society hastened to re-establish itself for several reasons: they foresaw that the new wave of European priests would come to America not sharing their appreciation for the separation of church and state or their profound suspicion of church authorities or their openness to innovation. Resentment of Pope Clement, often referred to simply as “Ganganelli,” who had suppressed the Society, remained strong, particularly in Carroll. Historian Ronald A. Binzley concludes, “The clergy needed to defend their rights within the church no less than citizens had to defend their rights within the political community, of this they had no doubt.” 

Next: Part III, "John Carroll and the American Character

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