For 250 years — since 1763 — the parish of St. Joseph in Pomfret, Md., has served southern Maryland’s Catholic community.
On Sept. 22, the parish was to celebrate its 250th anniversary with a Mass presided by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington. Afterward, the parish community and visitors were invited to an old-fashioned parish picnic, complete with games, grilling, fellowship and fun.
The rich history of St. Joseph’s, begun during the persecution of colonial days, ranks it among the important sites of Maryland Catholicism.
Yet the vibrant parish life is a still more remarkable feature of St. Joseph’s. For two and a half centuries, social and economic forces in America have tended to pull apart Catholic parishes, especially small, rural ones. Through all this, St. Joseph’s has preserved continuity in its structures and in its community.
Built to Last
Set back from the road, the main church of St. Joseph’s is built in a 19th-century style: small nave, simple peaked roof and bell tower. The frame, built with bricks fired on the premises, dates from 1849, but it was gutted for renovation in 1974.
The simple interior features colonial-style pews. Opalescent stained-glass windows, added in 1986, allow the white walls to reflect sunlight.
Behind the church, wrought-iron gates open onto a paved path through a wide churchyard. The oldest known grave is marked 1777; many more graves date from the Civil War. Two cedars mark the spot where the first log-cabin chapel is thought to have stood in the 1700s.
Between the church and graveyard are nestled two small prayer gardens, one dedicated to St. Joseph, the other to Our Lady. Both are maintained by parishioners volunteering their time.
Help From Bishop Sheen
Few might have predicted this glowing state of affairs for St. Joseph’s in 1974, when the then-125-year-old church building had just been condemned and slated for demolition two weeks before Christmas.
Yet when they heard that their parish might disappear, St. Joseph’s parishioners stepped up. They raised more than $150,000 and pitched in more than 40,000 man-hours of volunteer work to prepare the church for renovation. Each Saturday for months, men of the parish tore out the church interior and rebuilt the nearly 100-year-old bell tower.
Still, the renovation needed to be done by experts. Parishioners had given all they could, yet funds were still low. So the pastor at the time, Father John Brady, turned a temporary assignment into an ingenious financial solution. Asked at the last minute to record some local retreat talks by well-known Bishop Fulton Sheen, Father Brady collaborated with Bishop Sheen to create a nonprofit organization that would produce and distribute these talks, along with more of Bishop Sheen’s retreats. "Ministr-O-Media," as the nonprofit was known, eventually produced five albums for Bishop Sheen and brought in more than enough income to complete St. Joseph’s renovation. The remaining revenue went to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Unity in Diversity
While St. Joseph’s church was being rebuilt, its community underwent renewal, too. For more than a century, the congregation was separated by race. In the 1800s, "pew rents," the forerunners of the weekly contribution, had brought with them the right to sit in the same pew week after week. The same family often kept the same pew for generations.
Both white and African-American families in the parish can trace their roots in the area and their families’ parish attendance back to Civil War times. Some American Indian parish families are descendants of the Piscataway community, the first Marylanders to be baptized by Jesuit missionary Father Andrew White in 1634.
While pew rent was harmless in theory, in practice it meant an economic — and, especially right after the Civil War, a racial — separation during Mass. But around the mid-20th century, pew renting disappeared at St. Joseph’s. Then, during the 1974 renovation, the old seating pattern was completely disrupted, said parishioner Judy Prinkey.
"People got used to sitting wherever they liked at Mass," she said, "and when we moved back to the new church, they felt more free to do that here, too."
Before this welcome change, though, the parish still nurtured the Catholic spirituality and identity of many American Indians and African Americans, such as Father Emilian Muschette, a Pomfret native and St. Joseph’s parishioner who was black. He was among the first men to profess vows as a Benedictine in St. Maur’s Priory, itself one of the first racially integrated religious communities in the American South.
Another notable African-American parishioner, Lottie Bealle, raised a large and faithful Catholic family, whose members still contribute to life at St. Joseph’s today. According to a book created by a team of parishioners for St. Joseph’s 250th anniversary celebration, Bealle was known for her patience, joyfulness and spirit of interior freedom.
Today, the unified parish community looks forward to celebrating its anniversary — and many more years of worshipping together.
Katy Carl writes from
Planning Your Visit
St. Joseph’s Parish
4590 St. Joseph’s Way
Pomfret, MD 20675
Saturday confession is held from 3 to 3:45pm, with a vigil Mass at 4pm. Sunday Masses are at 8:30 and 10:30am and 12:30pm. On the weekend of the anniversary Mass, the 10:30 Mass on Sunday will be canceled. For those with an interest in the parish history, the 250th-anniversary book is available for purchase; please contact the parish office at (301) 609-4670 for details.