by Mike Gabriele
November 1, 2016 — The year was 1634. Jesuit Father Andrew White arrived in the English Colonies at the Province of Maryland aboard the Ark and the Dove, along with fellow passengers Leonard Calvert and Thomas Greene, the first two governors of Maryland. They landed at St. Clement’s Island on the Potomac River, where Fr. White erected a large cross and celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the Colonies.
St. Ignatius Church is the oldest continuous use Catholic parish in the U.S.
Seeking to help establish a land that permitted freedom of religion, Fr. White settled among the local Indian tribes, learned their language and even baptized their chief. Not far up the river at Chapel Point, he established what is now St. Ignatius Church in 1641, the oldest Catholic parish in continuous use in the United States.
This year marks the 375th anniversary of St. Ignatius Chapel Point, and on Oct. 9 the parish commemorated the milestone with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, who said, “Today we come together so we might celebrate the Eucharist as was done on that very first day.” Concelebrants included Jesuit Father Thomas Clifford, the current pastor and historian of St. Ignatius.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl celebrated a Mass for the parish's 375th anniversary on Oct. 9.
Fr. White, who is known as “the apostle of Maryland,” translated the Hail Mary soon after arriving at Chapel Point, and so at the beginning of the Oct. 9 Mass a tribal elder of the Piscataway Conoy tribe said the prayer in their native language.
In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that the celebration was honoring the very beginning of the Catholic faith in what is now the United States. “We are here today as a part of the living continuity of the faith in the New World.”
The current church survived a post-Civil War fire in 1866.
Cardinal Wuerl encouraged everyone present to not only dwell on history, but “remind ourselves the future is ours as well. It is our turn simply to do what we’ve done for 375 years: live our faith, proclaim our faith and celebrate our faith.”
At the conclusion of Mass, Cardinal Wuerl read a letter from Pope Francis, in which the pontiff said he hopes “this occasion will inspire renewed commitment to the missionary spirit that compelled Father White, SJ, to lay the foundations of the church in the United States.”
Fr. Clifford, current pastor at St. Ignatius, addressed those gathered for the anniversary Mass.
“We are grateful that the faith came here 375 years ago thanks to a Jesuit, and we are well served today also by a Jesuit,” Cardinal Wuerl said while thanking Fr. Clifford for his service at the parish.
Jesuit pastors have had a presence at St. Ignatius dating back to Father Henry Warren, SJ, in 1662. Fr. Clifford addressed this significance. “The reason we have had Jesuits residing and serving the congregation here since 1662 is that this was at times the headquarters of the Maryland Mission and at other times the parish center of Charles County. It ties us to the larger church and Society of Jesus.”
The church that stands today atop the picturesque hill overlooking the Potomac is not the original building. The original chapel that served colonists, Indians and slaves was closer to the water. The Manor House was built on the hill in 1741 and remains the oldest continuous-use Jesuit residence in the world.
In 1773, despite suppression of the Society of Jesus by papal decree, which banned all Jesuits, several Jesuits continued to call Chapel Point their home, and in 1798, Father Charles Sewell, SJ, built the present church on the hill. It was blessed by John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore. Pope Pius VII fully restored the Society of Jesus in 1814.
“St. Ignatius Chapel Point is one of the reasons the Society came back so quickly in Maryland,” explained Fr. Clifford. “In Catholic Europe, the suppression meant the loss of Jesuit churches, schools and houses. Here, we had always found ways to survive during periods of persecution, so we continued even as the Society ceased to exist.”
Immediately following the Civil War in 1866, a fire nearly destroyed the church and manor. Both were fully restored and rededicated less than two years later. For more than 150 years, many missionaries lived and worked at St. Ignatius Chapel Point. From this one church, priests set forth to Catholic homes and other new churches throughout the area, celebrating Mass and providing the sacraments. In fact, most of the churches in Charles County, Maryland, were founded by priests originating at Chapel Point.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl greeted people after celebrating the anniversary Mass.
Today, people who visit St. Ignatius are moved as much by its deep history as by its natural beauty and serene surroundings. It is a parish that was established more than 100 years before the birth of the United States. It is the place where the first Jesuits renewed their vows after the restoration of the Society. And it serves today as a strong community of faith, promoting Ignatian spirituality and social justice. St. Ignatius Church Chapel Point continues to build on its rich history every day.
375 years is just the beginning.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.