When and where did religious freedom begin in what is now the United States?
The answer is 1634, and the place is St. Mary’s City, Maryland.
Founded by Catholic proprietor Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Maryland offered — from the start — liberty of conscience and the free exercise of religion to all. The colony offered a new concept: no established religion funded by the government.
One of the most powerful symbols of this policy was expressed in the construction of the first major Catholic church in English America during the 1660s. Preceded by two earlier wooden chapels built by Jesuit Father Andrew White, who is often called the "Apostle of Maryland," the brick chapel was the first brick structure in the colony. At the time, no freestanding Catholic church could be built anywhere else in the English-speaking world. The Catholic, Quaker and Presbyterian faiths, and many others, took root and flourished in early Maryland. However, following a rebellion in 1689 against Lord Baltimore and the imposition of the royal government, Maryland’s revolutionary policy of religious freedom ended.
In 1704, the governor ordered the chapel door to be locked and the building never again to be used for worship. In the 1720s, workers dismantled and recycled the bricks and other materials, and this important building disappeared from the land and memory.
What was this first major church like? Few documents and no drawings survive. The only way of finding out about it was with archaeology. It stood on land now owned by Historic St. Mary’s City, a state museum that preserves, studies and interprets Maryland’s founding site and first city.
The existence of this brick chapel was unknown until 1938, when architect H. Chandlee Forman discovered the massive foundations of a cross-shaped structure. Previously, a nearby rectangular building was thought to be the chapel. Once reburied, its exact location was again lost until the 1980s, when exploration of this 300-year-old building was begun by the museum.
Excavators found its rugged brick foundations about 10 inches below the land surface. Three feet across and originally extending into the ground five feet, they defined a Latin-cross-shaped church that was 54 feet long and 57 feet across at the arms. For comparison, the average house at that time in the colony measured 15 by 20 feet.
As the excavations continued, diggers recovered vital clues: pieces of clay roof tile, plaster from the walls, handmade nails, bits of window glass and fragments of an unusual type of stone.
Two documents mentioned that the chapel had a stone floor, and geologists tell us that this stone was imported from Europe. The bricks were made not far from the site and included small, specially molded bricks that allowed masons to create elaborate window shapes.
Each clue provided more evidence about this long-lost structure. Mapping the locations of nearly 70 graves inside the church showed where the altar platform had been and the pulpit once stood. In addition, there are perhaps 400 other people buried outside the church, making this site the largest cemetery in 17th-century Maryland. A major scientific study of three lead coffins buried in the north arm or transept of the chapel in the 1990s revealed that they contained members of Maryland’s founding family, the Calverts.
Archaeology provided many insights, but how they all fit together to form a building required more evidence. This came from surviving Jesuit churches built around the world in the 1600s and early 1700s. While there was not a rigid "Jesuit style," these places of worship do have many similarities. With the aid of Jesuit Father Thomas Lucas of the University of San Francisco and architects John Mesick and Jeffery Baker, the evidence was combined, and a detailed plan for the likely appearance of this highly significant building was created.
Beginning in 2003, upon the original foundations, reconstruction began. Workers employed traditional methods throughout, including a wood and rope scaffold that rose with the walls. Archaeologists had found traces of the original scaffold holes. Using mortar made from oyster shells and bricks handmade from St. Mary’s City clay on the exterior, the structure was gradually rebuilt over the next six years.
Sheathed with a red-tile roof, its front is covered in exterior plaster called "rendering" to give the appearance of more prestigious stone. The facade bears the influence of the Renaissance, with classical features widely used in building Catholic churches during that era. It is capped with a wrought-iron cross that was duplicated from a rare colonial Maryland example now housed at Georgetown University.
On the interior, soft-white plaster walls are illuminated with high windows holding diamond-shaped glass panes, as indicated by the archaeological finds. The ceiling is made up of sawn pine planks in a barrel vault form. Stone covers the floor and is the same type and color as originally used, obtained from an American quarry.
Architectural work was completed in 2009, and a special ceremony to celebrate this achievement was held. Attending and speaking at the event was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington. Since then, design work has continued on the interior, and timber has been acquired, but the altar, tabernacle and pulpit remain to be built.
There is one unique artifact believed to survive from the interior of this building: a wooden tabernacle owned in the 18th century by the Carroll family, including Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Family legend tells that this tabernacle was at the church in St. Mary’s City. Analysis of this object, which displays the seal of the Society of Jesus, along with other elaborate carvings on the front, all originally covered in gold leaf, supports this family tradition. The Carroll tabernacle is perhaps the oldest in the United States and is currently on display at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore. It will serve as the model for a reproduction to be housed at the St. Mary’s City church.
Reconstruction of this historic building has been as faithful to the original and period practices as is possible. The interior is currently unfinished, but it will have artwork and statues mounted on the walls. An altar rail and a three-step platform for the altar, with the tabernacle, will be installed. Over the tabernacle is to be a large piece of religious art, most likely an image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus. Evidence suggests the original chapel was dedicated to the Virgin, which is not surprising in a city named St. Mary’s. Worshippers would have stood or knelt during services, for Catholic churches of that era did not have pews.
St. Mary’s City has a special place in the Catholic history of America. While there were Catholic churches in French-and-Spanish-controlled areas, it is the seeds of faith first planted by Andrew White and the Maryland colonists that survived 18th-century persecution and flourished again with the creation of the Baltimore Diocese in 1789.
The chapel is a museum exhibit of Historic St. Mary’s City, but it is also a place for visitors to learn about and contemplate this deep history and pray in a sacred and peaceful setting surrounded by the mortal remains of hundreds of Catholics who first planted the seeds of faith and religious liberty on these shores.
The chapel at St. Mary’s is a powerful symbol of the religious freedom and respect for conscience that Lord Baltimore and other Catholics introduced to these shores for the first time in 1634. It is a key place to explore the beginning of these fundamental human rights and the Church in America.
Henry M. Miller, Ph.D., is the Maryland heritage scholar
at Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland.
Historic St. Mary’s City
St. Mary’s City, MD 20686
Planning Your Visit
The museum is located at St. Mary’s City in southern Maryland, about an hour and a half from Washington. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm, from mid-March to early December.