With a name like Old Bohemia, this place stood little chance of being recognized as the cradle of colonial Catholicism.
That was exactly the point in 1704, when it was founded as an undercover mission.
The English Jesuits who arrived in the colony of Maryland knew what it took to lead a double life. For the previous 50 years, they had assumed aliases, packed away their clerical garb for secret Masses and lived the lives of outlaws. If caught, they could be sent back to England in chains.
Outside of Warwick, Md., they bought a 1,200-acre plantation from its owner, an old (Protestant) Bohemian. There they settled in as “bachelor farmers.”
This is not the history most Americans learn about Colonial times. Many of us read in our American-history textbooks that Maryland was the Catholic colony. The fact is, Lord Baltimore, the Catholic nobleman, was given this land in America as a reward for services rendered to King Charles I by his father, Sir George Calvert.
Many people think the colony, Maryland, was named for the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it was named after King Charles' wife, Queen Henrietta Marie of France. In 1649, the colonial governing body passed the Religious Toleration Act. All Christians were welcomed. Everyone lived happily ever after.
That's where most history books leave off. Many Catholics did come to Maryland for freedom to practice their faith, which was being persecuted in England. But an even larger number of Puritans migrated to the mild, fertile land. By 1654, the new population passed a law again outlawing the practice of the Catholic faith. Catholics could not hold public office. Catholic schools were illegal. Public celebration of Mass was an offense punishable by death. Catholic priests were criminals.
The severity of the restrictions varied over the years, but our gallant missionaries lived in a dangerous environment for eight decades. They road on horseback to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland to minister covertly to their flock. No official records could be made of the baptisms, marriages and funerals performed. The sacraments could endure only in the minds, hearts and souls of the faithful. Wealthy colonial Catholics, like their brethren in England, built private chapels in their homes and priest holes to hide a visiting priest in case of a raid.
The Jesuits also started an illegal Catholic academy at Old Bohemia, which is considered the beginnings of Georgetown University. Students of the school included the later Archbishop John Carroll and Charles Carroll, the sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Feels Like Freedom
The approach to the Shrine of St. Francis Xavier, as Old Bohemia is officially called, looks much the way it did 300 years ago. You travel down a long country road through rolling acres of corn and soybean fields. First to come into view is the brick church that was built after the Bill of Rights was signed in 1787 finally guaranteeing religious freedom.
The church was completed in 1797. In 1915, a fire gutted the structure. The local bishop rebuilt it out of respect for its historical significance, even though the parish's registered population never grew large enough to move it up from mission-church status. During the Great Depression the Wilmington
Diocese, now the official owner of the property, sold most of the acreage off to pay debts. By 1952 cows were grazing in the cemetery. Whatever looters hadn't carried off was being destroyed by time and the elements.
In 1954 three men — a Catholic, a Quaker and a Methodist — formed the Old Bohemia Historical Society. Recognizing the value of the place to the history of Christianity, they bought back 120 acres of land surrounding the church, farmhouse/rectory and barn. They inspired others from nearby Delaware and Maryland to help in the restoration of this national treasure.
“Old Boh is a survivor,” says Marji Matyniak, an antique dealer and today's president of the society. “It has come through persecution, fire and financial ruin. Its existence is a miracle. I am an assertive person and I do all I can to get things done. Then there comes a point when I say to God, ‘It's in your hands.’ And that's when the phone rings.”
This phenomenon occurred most recently over shutters for the church's large windows. Because the window frames were built in the 1700s, they were not identical. Each one required its own hand-crafted pair of shutters, a project that would cost $13,000. Matyniak could see no way to raise this amount of money anytime soon. One night the phone rang. A local family donated the entire amount in memory of a loved one who had recently died.
What we find now is the fruit of 50 years of action by the society. The two-story farmhouse cum rectory includes the kitchen, dating to the 1700s and built over the foundation of the original log cabin. The parlor has been restored to its charming 1825 era, when it was a legal priests' residence. It is set for tea. Other rooms contain display cases of artifacts. Among them are everyday items as well as ornate vestments, chalices and a colonial family's privately printed missal. My personal favorite was the 4-foot-long wrought-iron hand press used for baking Communion hosts.
The church has been fully restored. Its simple pews face a wooden high altar painted white. A more modern altar is also in the sanctuary so that priests may celebrate Mass facing the congregation. The large, clear windows allow the country sunlight and fresh air to stream in.
The barn displays farm equipment and vehicles from various historical eras. It also houses a modest gift shop specializing in old religious articles that have been donated by society members and parishioners of area churches.
Last but not least is the cemetery. Headstones dot the surrounding hills. They mark graves from the Revolutionary War era, the Civil War and up to the present. One recent grave memorializes unborn children. Behind the church is a walled section smelling distinctly of boxwood. The shrubs and graves date back to the early 1700s. This is the Jesuits' graveyard.
A moment here brings to light the love our older brother priests had for us. They left their families and homelands in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland to sail to the New World, knowing they would never return. Names, birth and death dates and places are engraved on a modern plaque. The old tombstones bore no “SJ” initials after the man's name — evidence of the deceased's priestly vocation had to remain hidden in death as it had in life. The witness of their lives speaks to us even today.
Kathleen Whitney Barr writes from Newark, Delaware.