An American Family: The Carrolls
Catholic Story in the Midst of Revolutionary War
Editor's Note: This story was originally posted from our Nov. 16, 2014 issue.
Annapolis, Md., is a pleasant city of beautiful gardens and picturesque river walks.
The capital of Maryland is the home of the U.S. Naval Academy and was the former capital of the United States. About 30 miles from Washington and 25 miles from Baltimore, a visit to Annapolis is a wonderful way to spend a restful day not far from the bustle of either of those two cities; it has intriguing insights for Catholics, too.
This small city built around the Chesapeake Bay is important to the history of our country and our Catholic faith.
Walking leisurely along the leafy streets, one is reminded constantly of the city’s Revolutionary War pedigree. Four homes owned by signers of the Declaration of Independence can be visited. One of them is behind St. Mary’s Church on the Duke of Gloucester Street — the Charles Carroll House (CharlesCarrollHouse.org), former home of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. The best overall exterior impression of the house, however, is gained by an approach from the water or walking along the Spa Creek Drawbridge and turning around to see the house in all of its splendor, dominating that part of the waterfront.
As Ronald Hoffman describes in his authoritative book about the Carrolls, Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga 1500-1782, “One of the few brick buildings in the capital, Carroll’s plain, solidly built four-bay house unmistakably asserted that its occupant didn’t mean to be overlooked.”
After reading the Hoffman book and visiting the house last summer with my family, I have a better sense of how Catholics had to overcome certain prejudices and how, despite those prejudices, they made significant contributions to our country.
The first Carroll to arrive here from Ireland is today known as “The Settler.” He left Ireland due to discrimination from the British; arriving in the colonies in 1689, he was jailed in 1691 for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith.
When Charles Carroll the Settler died in 1720, he was considered the wealthiest man in the colony of Maryland and the largest landowner. Included in his holdings was the property where the Carroll house sits today, but with a wooden structure on it that predates the current home. This earlier house, as does the current home, had a chapel in it because Catholics, by law, could only worship in private.
The second Carroll, the father of the signer, was known as Charles Carroll of Annapolis. It was this Carroll who began the construction of the current house; but due to the penal laws of the day, which forbade him — because of his Catholic faith — from holding public office, voting, practicing law and educating his offspring in the Catholic faith, he was forced to send his only son Charles to study in Paris to get a classical education; he later received an advanced law degree in London. Before studying in Paris, Carroll studied at St. Omer, a forerunner of Stonyhurst College, in England.
Charles Carroll returned to Maryland in 1765 at the age of 28. He had been gone for 17 years. In that time, his mother had died, and there was growing discontent in the English colonies.
The years surrounding 1776 are interesting and fraught with important decisions that would impact our country even to the present day. With the birth of the United States of America, things like the oath of abjuration (which promised fidelity to the English king and was never taken by any of the Carrolls) and secret in-house Masses became things of the past — but the new country was not without its prejudices and pitfalls for Catholics.
However, as Hoffman so eloquently states in his book, “On August 2, 1776, this descendant of a long line of Irish rebels became a full-fledged member of America’s Revolutionary elite.”
After spending a full and productive life in service to his country in various capacities, such as a member of the Continental Congress, a Maryland state senator and a U.S. senator, as well as helping to start the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Charles Carroll of Carrollton died on Nov. 14, 1832, at 95 years old, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. When he died, President Andrew Jackson ordered the government to be shut down, and he declared a day of mourning. The only other time the government had been closed until that point was when George Washington died.
In 1852, the Carroll house was sold to the Redemptorists for $6,000, under the condition that it always be consecrated to religion.
From 1907 until 1968, the house served as a novitiate for the order. Today, the Carroll residence, still owned by the Redemptorists and leased by the Charles Carroll House of Annapolis organization provides free public tours on weekends from noon to 4pm between June and September. The house itself is undergoing various ongoing projects and upgrades. It was a slight disappointment to go through the unfurnished and unfinished rooms where George Washington had dined on at least two occasions and St. John Neumann and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos visited, but the stories connected to the home and the beautiful gardens with immediate and expansive water views made up for the lack of interior visual appeal.
As I type these words and think back to our day in Annapolis and our tour of the house and gardens, I can see our children running around on the grassy overlook behind the house and my wife and I enjoying the plantings and the gentle breeze from the bay.
An unexpected surprise in the garden awaited us in the small garden cemetery: Interred there is St. Justin, who was martyred during the time of the persecutions of Maximus during the years of 308-314 in Rome.
The house, for me, has become a symbol of familial Catholic contributions and commitments to our country and our faith.
Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his cousin, John Carroll, who became the first bishop and archbishop in the United States, are two good examples of Catholics serving their country without compromising their faith.
James Carmody writes from Stratford, Connecticut.
- Nov. 16-29, 2014