The Development of the Catholic Church in the District of Columbia from Colonial Times Until the Present
By Margaret Brent Downing
Read before the Columbia Historical Society, February 21, 1911
On May 11, 1893, a distinguished assemblage of Catholic prelates, priests and people gathered in the picturesque village of Forest Glen, Montgomery County, Maryland, to assist at the ceremonies incident to the laying of the corner stone of Saint John’s church the direct successor of the old Rock Creek Mission founded by Father John Carroll. The venerable Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons was chief celebrant and the sermon was preached by Reverend Thomas 0 ‘Gorman, then professor of Modern Church History at the Catholic University of America, now Bishop of Sioux Falls, North Dakota. After paying a stirring tribute to the patriarch and primate of American hierarchy, Doctor O’Gorman said:
“Saint John’s at Forest Glen is the Bethlehem of the Catholic Church in the United States, just as Baltimore is its Jerusalem. On this spot sprung the mustard seed planted by the founder of the American hierarchy and it has grown into a mighty tree. Saint John’s chapel founded in 1774 has impregnated the entire continent with Catholicism. John Carroll in this country stands as truly the father of religious civilization as George Washington of political and civil liberty.”
The Rock Creek mission, boasting the most honorable record of all churches and chapels in this vicinity, does not in the strict sense form part of the history and development of the Catholic church in what is now the District of Columbia, since Montgomery County is not included in the Congressional limits of the “Ten Miles Square.” Yet its influence in the upbuilding of Catholicism in the capital city permeates every chapter of history and must necessarily form the prelude to all research. From a more comprehensive viewpoint, since the entire area of the District of Columbia was carved from Maryland soil, the story of the Catholic Church here, begins with the dawn of Maryland history in 1634 with the arrival of the Dove and the Ark. Father Andrew White and his companions Fathers John Altham and Timothy Hayes and Brother Thomas Gervase accompanied the original expedition of Catholic Pilgrim Fathers and assisted with pious rites in laying the foundation stone of the commonwealth. “On March 25, 1634,” writes Father White, in his “Narrative of the Voyage of the Dove and the Ark”: “We celebrated Mass for the first time on this island (Saint Clement’s). This had never been done before in this part of the world.” In this same narration, the Potomac river is mentioned for the first time in Catholic annals. “After being kindly treated for eight or nine days,” says Father White, describing the reception accorded by the Emperor of the Piscataways, “we set sail on the third of March, and entering the Chesapeake Bay we turned our course north to reach the Potomac river. The Chesapeake Bay ten leagues wide flows gently between its shores; it is four five and six fathoms deep and abounds in fish when the season is favorable; you will scarcely find a more beautiful body of water. Yet it yields the palm to the Potomac which we called for Saint Gregory.” The saint in whose honor the river so dear to all Washingtonians was named by one of its earliest navigators, is Pope Gregory the First, called the Great, the Pontiff who sent Saint Augustine to England and who was for this reason specially venerated by English missionaries.
The history of Lord Baltimore’s Palatinate throws little light on the religious development of the section where the capital of the United States is now situated. To treat the subject even superficially as it must be in the compass of such a paper, means merely to trace a few facts through the labyrinths of tradition until the written history begins with the ministry of Father John Carroll at Rock Creek. From various reliable sources we know that Catholic missionaries and their lay assistants were laboring throughout the entire domain of Maryland as early as 1679. ” Their pathway was through the wilderness and their first chapel the wigwam of the Indian. They kindled the torch of civilization and brought the gentle religion of Christ to the children of the forest” is the tribute of Ridpath. The story of the labors and perils and successes of these first missionaries is one of the most important chapters in American ecclesiastical history, but unfortunately one which has been persistently neglected. An occasional gleam is thrown on its dark pages in the waning seventeenth century. These are principally to be found in the annual letters which the priests wrote to their English Superiors and which may be read in the Woodstock letters in the records of the Society of Jesus and of the Congregation of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. Father White and his companions pitched their tent in Saint Mary’s city, the first capital of Maryland. In 1636, Reverend Thomas Copley came to Saint Mary’s and superseded Father White as superior of the Maryland missions. Father White ministered at more distant points and finally took up his residence in the so-called palace of Tayac, the Emperor of the Piscataways which was near the Patuxent River almost opposite Mount Vernon. Father Thomas Copley is one of the most impressive clerical figures in early colonial records. He enjoyed the esteem and friendship of the Lord Proprietary and was offered a seat at his council table. There are accounts which paint him a swashbuckler while others dwell upon his eminent priestly qualities. Rev. William P. Treacy in his valuable little chronicle “Old Catholic Maryland” gives the first authentic history of this rather mysterious personage who figures in Maryland secular annals as Thomas Copley, Esq., and in the religious records as Father Philip Fisher. Many stirring adventures are credited to him in London, and he performed his priestly duties in many disguises; once as a Scotch piper and again as a gentleman dandy, a very mirror of fashion who attended to things spiritual while apparently frivoling his time in vain pursuits.
Father Thomas Copley was the son of Sir Roger Copley of Gatton in Surrey and grandson of Lord Thomas Copley, Baron of Wellesley, whose wife was Elizabeth Shelley, sister of Sir William Shelley, last English Lord Prior of Saint John’s in Jerusalem. The mother of the Maryland missionary was Margaret Prideaux, daughter of a gentleman of Norfolk and she was daughter of Margaret Giggs, who figures in the old annals as the godchild of Sir Thomas More and the intimate friend of Margaret Roper. Her picture appears with arms twined about Margaret Roper in Holbein’s famous canvas of Sir Thomas More, his family and friends.
The annual letter of 1545 records “That the Civil war then cruelly raging in all the English Counties has extended even to Maryland, where some fanatics to curry favor with parliament have carried off two of our fathers, namely Philip Fisher and Andrew White.” Both suffered imprisonment in London but were finally acquitted. Father Copley returned to Maryland but years and infirmity weighed heavily on Father White, and he remained in his own country where he died three years later. In 1648 we find Father Copley again at his post as superior of the Maryland missions, the headquarters of which he had moved from Saint Mary’s to Saint Inigoes. Father Laurence Starkey was at Saint Mary’s in 1652 when Claiborne and the Puritan Party took possession. From that time until the Declaration of Independence closed the chapter of English rule in Maryland, the penal laws were enforced against Catholics with greater or less rigor as public policy dictated. There is abundant testimony to prove that intrepid priests continued to minister to their scattered flocks after penal law had superseded the broad charter of religions liberty under which Maryland had been founded. The zeal and charity of these missionaries, their disregard of earthly comforts and rewards, their patience under cruel and unjust persecution, their heroic devotion to duty through hitter poverty and constant peril are known only through their results. What they did for religion and humanity was long ago recorded in the imperishable Book, but at the scene of their labors their very names, the place of their residence, the extent of their work have, except in rare instances, passed out of human knowledge, proving that “the world knows nothing of its greatest men.”
In the archives of the Propaganda Fide in Rome may be found the report of the Abbott Claudius Agretti, a Canon of Bruges sent on a special mission to England in 1669. The papal ablegate gives at some length the account of his visit to Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, at his villa on the Thames and reports that the aged nobleman complained bitterly that there were only two priests to administer to two thousand Catholics in the Province of Maryland. Lord Baltimore sent an acrimonious message by the papal representative regarding the promises made him twenty years before by the Holy See. The result was that two Franciscans were sent to supplement the Fathers William and Henry Warren then bearing the burden alone. There is not a trace of where these followers of Saint Francis labored nor for how long, nor of their names and in the colonial records only a line in the annual letter of 1673 states that two Franciscan priests had come to Maryland during the same year.
During the century and more which elapsed between the dominance of the Puritan Party in 1652 and the active ministry of Father John Carroll at Rock Creek, a few fragments of Catholic development may be obtained from the family records of the Catholic gentry of this section. It is deeply to be deplored that the missionaries who defied the penal law and continued to bring spiritual comfort to the isolated Catholics about the present site of Washington kept no record of their people. But their course is thus explained by Reverend Edward I. Devitt, professor of colonial history at Georgetown University and a leading authority on Catholic colonial subjects, that these priests though zealous and without fear for their own safety forebore to keep written accounts which falling into hostile hands might jeopardize the lives and property of their spiritual children.
The ground on which the splendid pile of buildings included in the United States Capitol, the Congressional Library and the fine streets surrounding, in 1670 passed into the possession of a pioneer Catholic settler of Maryland. Thomas Notley purchased this land from George Thompson. Thompson’s deed recorded in the. first entries at Saint Mary’s and preserved in duplicate at the City Hall here, shows that on February 12, 1663, he took over by deed of patent duly witnessed eighteen hundred acres comprising Duddington Manor, Duddington Pasture and New Troy, all of which tracts comprise a large and very important portion of Washington City. Thomas Notley’s certified deed from Thompson is dated November 20, 1670. On March 1, 1671, is the interesting entry that Thomas Notley by certified deed of patent unites his three patents, Duddington Manor, Dudding- ton Pasture and New Troy into the erection of a Manor called Cern Abbey Manor. Thus the land where the imposing halls of national legislature stand sentinel-like over the city, was once the Manor of Cern Abbey, named from an ancient Benedictine foundation of Dorsetshire. The Notleys coming from this shire of England probably held in special veneration this old abbey, then a ruin and one of the forty ruined abbeys, priories and hospitals which Sir William Dugdale mentions in his “Mona sticum Anglicanum” as existing in Dorset. A legendary history says that Cern Abbey owed its existence to the immediate followers of Saint Augustine, who after converting Kent came this way and built a hermitage and shrine.
The historical records of Cern Abbey date from the first abbot Aelfric in 987, who afterwards became Bishop of Wilton and Archbishop of Canterbury. The church of Saint John at Cern Abbey mentioned in the Doomsday Survey was destroyed by Canute the Dane but afterwards rebuilt with greater splendor. The line of abbots of Cern Abbey forms an unbroken chair from Aelfric to the spoliation under Henry the Eighth.
On April 3, 1674, is recorded the last will and testament of Thomas Notley devising in fee to his godson and namesake Notley Rozier, Cern Abbey Manor. Notley Rozier married Jane Digges and their only daughter, Eleanor, married Daniel Carroll. Title then passes from Eleanor Rozier Carroll to her eldest son, Charles Carroll of Duddington, and from him to his oldest son, Daniel Carroll, and from Daniel to Charles Carroll, Jr. This Charles Carroll on August 17, 1758, made title of four hundred acres to Ann Young, and she on December 5, 1761, made over to her son Notley Young all the holdings of Cern Abbey Manor except Dnddington Manor which remained in the Carroll family. Notley Young and Daniel Carroll of Duddington were among the original proprietors who on March 30, 1791, sold their ancestral acres to President George Washington in consideration of the good benefits which we expect to derive from having the Federal City laid off from our lands,” so the old agreement reads.
Besides the various ramifications of Carrolls, Notleys, Youngs, Roziers and Diggeses there were many other powerful and wealthy Catholic families in this district. The scope of this paper will permit only a brief mention of their names. The Queens held lands from an original patent from Leonard Calvert. The Brents figure extensively in Maryland history. Giles Brent was deputy governor of the province and Margaret Brent’s memory is held in high esteem by the disciples of Susan B. Anthony. They were extensive land owners in Maryland and Virginia and by the marriage of Robert Brent, first mayor of Washington, to Mary, daughter of Notley Young, the family obtained valuable possessions in the immediate neighborhood of Washington. The Magruders were an old and important family about Georgetown and had large possessions. The Neales, Fenwicks, Boarmans, Matthews, Boones and Jenkins were in counties farther removed from Washington. That the Catholic religion survived at all in the days of persecution may be credited mainly to the heroic zeal of these native Marylanders, many of whose sons entered the priesthood in the various colleges of Flanders, and returned to labor at their own hearth stones.
The manor house at Duddington appears to have been a central point for the priests who made occasional parochial excursions into Virginia and to the Catholics about Washington City. Reverend Edward I. Devitt, before quoted, names the venerable Father Thomas Digges as probably the first priest who offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in what is now the City of Washington and the chapel in the Notley Young home as the scene of this ceremony. This mansion was in G street South and 9th and 10th streets West, half way between the steamboat wharf and the long bridge. Father Thomas Digges was a member of the illustrious colonial family whose founder, Edward Digges, fourth son of Sir Dudley Digges and his wife Mary Kemp, came to Virginia in 1650. This Edward Digges was a member of the Council, was auditor-general and governor of Virginia from 1656 to 1658. Colonel William Digges, son of Governor Edward Digges, was born in the ancestral home at Chuham Manor, England, and this name was given later to an American home of the family, at Green Hill, Maryland, in 1779. Another branch of the family was long at Warburton, now Fort Washington, and George Digges, the owner of Warburton Manor, was the neighbor of George Washington at Mount Vernon and they were on the most friendly terms, as a long correspondence between them shows. The widow of George Digges built the Green Hill mansion on the Chuham Manor tract and this hospitable home afforded an asylum for the world-weary and disappointed Major Pierre Charles L ‘Enfant, the distinguished French engineer who planned our beautiful capital city. It was from Green Hill, where he passed his last days protected by the Digges family, that his mortal remains were disinterred by act of Congress and tardy recognition accorded his eminent services, in a stately military funeral and a monument in Arlington Cemetery. Father Thomas Digges was born in Charles County in 1711, entered the Jesuit order in 1729 and became a professed member on February 2, 1747. His residence and the scene of more than half a century’s missionary labors was Meiwood, Maryland. It was here that he entertained his old friend and superior Bishop Carroll for a month in the summer of 1804. Bishop Carroll records in a sympathetic letter the death of Father Digges, at the patriarchal age of ninety-three, and he solemnized Mass at his funeral.
In a statement prepared by Bishop Carroll in 1790 at the request of the Roman authorities and preserved in the Baltimore records is found the best description extant of general Catholic conditions in Maryland when the war of Independence broke the shackles of persecution. After describing the attempts made to introduce the whole penal code into the Province, he says, “Under these distressing circumstances Catholic families of note left their church, and carried an accession of weight and influence into the Protestant cause. The seat of government was removed from Saint Mary’s, where Catholics were powerful, to Annapolis, the strength lay in the opposite party. Catholics excluded from all lucrative employments, harassed and discouraged, became in general poor and But in spite of their discouragements their numbers increased with the increase of population. either had clergyman in their neighborhood or were occasionally visited by them. But these congregations were dispersed at such distances and the clergy were so few that many Catholic families could not always hear Mass or receive instructions as often as once a month. Domestic instructions supplied in some degree this defect but very imperfectly. Under all these difficulties it is surprising that there remained in Maryland as much as there was of the true religion. Contiguous to the houses where the priests resided on lands which had been secured for them, small chapels were built but scarcely anywhere else. When divine service was performed at a distance private and inconvenient buildings were used for churches. Catholics contributed little or nothing to the support of religion or its ministers; the whole charge of their maintenance of furnishing the altars and of all traveling expenses fell on the priests themselves and no compensation was ever offered for any service performed by them nor did they require any so long as the produce of their lands was sufficient to answer their demands.”
Such was the religious condition when Father Carroll, bearing the credentials of a secular priest, landed on June 26, 1774, at the estate of his brother-in-law William Brent, Esquire, at Richland, Virginia. By one of those coincidences in which history abounds the vessel which carried the founder of the American hierarchy back to his native land was the last one which cleared an English port for the Chesapeake Bay before the outbreak of the hostilities which ended in American independence. Those who read closely into the letters and papers of Bishop Carroll at this time cannot but conclude that he turned his steps homeward more to find peace and some humble and useful occupation and to cheer his aged mother’s path into eternity than in the hope of a prosperous or successful ecclesiastical career. The Woodstock letters contain a moving account of the meeting between Mrs. Carroll and her son. He had left her a lad of twelve and he returned a man of forty, saddened by disappointment and failure; prematurely old and careworn. It is small wonder that she did not recognize him and that it required some effort to establish his identity.
The mother of Archbishop Carroll, born Eleanor Darnall, was a valiant woman of her day. Her father, Henry Darnall, held estates at Woodyard, a plantation on the Potomac near the present landing of Glymont and the family was old and distinguished in England and in Maryland. Mrs. Carroll was a cousin of Mary Darnall, who was the wife of Charles Carroll of Carroliton, and she was allied by ties of blood and marriage to many other prominent families. She had received a finished education in France and possessed the accomplishments of the ladies of her era. She married Daniel Carroll, a prosperous merchant of Upper Marlborough, a native of Ireland but closely akin to the distinguished family of Carroll which had come to the Colony in 1688. John Carroll, the future prelate, was born in Upper Marlborough in 1735 and probably baptized in Boone’s chapel. Nothing better illustrates the lack of church records than the fact that the most diligent biographer of Archbishop Carroll cannot say definitely where he received the sacrament of baptism. The Boones, a wealthy and pious family, maintained a chapel on their estate and it was adjacent to Upper Marlborough. This forms the only basis for the conjecture. There are three priests of the name of Boone in Maryland annals, the best known Father Joseph Boone, whose mother, Mary Spalding, brings that illustrious name for the first time into American Catholic history. Daniel Carroll died in 1750 and shortly afterwards his widow moved to the mansion at Rock Creek. Here she was more accessible to her son, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, and her daughter Anne, who had married Robert Brent of Aquia Creek, Virginia, and Ellen, who was the wife of William Brent of Richland. Mrs. Carroll with her maiden daughters Mary and Betsy, was managing her large plantations about Rock Creek when her son returned to cheer her declining years. The venerable mansion hallowed by her half century’s residence and the twelve years’ ministry of her illustrious son long withstood the ravages of time and finally fell a victim to flames. Its site is occupied by a pretty modern cottage in Forest Glen.
Attached to his mother’s home, Father Carroll found a tiny chapel which had occasionally been attended by Father Thomas Digges and the missionaries from Whitemarsh and Saint Inigoes. This he made a radiating point and at once began to cultivate a spiritual field which was of almost hopeless dimensions. His parish roughly sketched included the counties of Frederick and Montgomery in Maryland, all of the City of Washington and into Virginia as far as Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford Counties. There were Catholics scattered at immense distances and for the better systematizing of his work Father Carroll made stations at his brother’s home in Duddington Manor and at the Robert Brent estate at Aquia Creek The small chapel at the Rock Creek mansion was used until the Catholics of the neighborhood, long deprived of regular religious comfort, became so numerous that it was inadequate for parish purposes. The events of July fourth, 1776, had ended the penal law and it was now possible to erect a separate building for a church. Father Carroll dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist the little shrine which he built about half a mile from his mother’s home on ground which she had joyfully given for the purpose. This was the second public parish church in Maryland, the first being Saint Peter’s in Baltimore. Unfortunately there is not in existence a picture of this Bethlehem of American Catholicism, nor is there a detailed description of it. Colonel Bernard U. Campbell, writing in 1844 for the United States Catholic Magazine of Archbishop Carroll and his Times, says of this church of Saint John, then standing and which he had reverently visited,
“At a distance of about half a mile from his (Father Carroll’s) residence was the church at which he officiated on Sundays and holidays, an humble frame building of about thirty feet square which still remains, though often patched and seldom painted, a frail and tottering memorial of its saintly pastor and an evidence of the humble condition of Catholics sixty years ago.”
From some old letters a few other details have been obtained. The interior in the last years of the eighteenth century was crudely whitewashed and over the altar was painted red and blue. A choir was placed over the main entrance in a small gallery and at the other end, separated from the main body of the church by a low wooden railing was the altar. On the epistle ride and just outside the railing was placed the Carroll pew and further down on the same side the benches on which sat the slaves of the Carroll’s and the Catholic gentry. The congregation was provided with better benches which filled the remainder of the I church. Two tiny rooms back of the altar answered for sacristy and confessional. The old wooden altar at which the primate of the American hierarchy said Mass is preserved in the new church of Saint John in Forest Glen. According to testimony of one of Father Carroll’s successors at Saint John’s, people went to church in his days to pray and not to enjoy themselves. The church was not heated until 1840 and then by a hole being pierced in the wall by which the stove pipe reached the outer air. For ten years, this courtly and eloquent divine served the parish of Saint John’s and his sermons during this period he always counted among the most fruitful efforts of his life. It was while ministering at Saint John’s that Father Carroll accompanied Benjamin Franklin and Charles Carroll of Carrollton to Canada to solicit sympathy and support for the struggling colonists in the war recently declared against the mother country. In 1784 John Carroll was appointed prefect apostolic with power to administer confirmation throughout the United States. In 1786 he departed from Rock Creek for Baltimore, where he was residing when the bull of Pope Pius VI created him the first bishop of that see.
For one hundred and twelve years after its first pastor had achieved such eminence in the church, Rock Creek remained a mission, sometimes attended by the priests from Georgetown College and Trinity Church, and sometimes by the priests from Lower Maryland. It is mentioned in 1806 in the archdiocesan records of Baltimore in a letter from Bishop Carroll to Father John Grassi, superior of the Jesuits, with Queen’s chapel and other rural missions which must be attended by the members of the order from Trinity Church or thereabout. In 1813, Saint John’s became a mission attended regularly once a month by the pastors of the Rockville church. In 1850, Reverend Bernard McManus, then pastor, finding the church almost a ruin, decided to build a new one, and this second edifice was consecrated with solemn ceremonial by Archbishop Eccieston of Baltimore. The sermon was preached by Rev. Thomas Foley afterwards bishop of Chicago. From 1850 until the present, the pastors at Rock Creek mission have been worthy successors of the great prelate who blazed their path. Rev. Father Francis E. Boyle, the eloquent scholar and noted philanthropist who died pastor of Saint Matthew’s, served here from 1850 until 1853. Rev. James Mackin, the beloved shepherd at Saint Paul’s, was pastor of this ancient shrine from 1877 until 1881. Rev. Placidus J. Chappelle ministered from 1865 to 1870. He was after- wards bishop and archbishop of Santa Fe’, New Mexico, and later Archbishop of New Orleans, and the first apostolic delegate to Cuba and the Philippines. On November 2, 1888, Rev. Charles O. Rosensteel was appointed resident pastor of Saint John’s, and he has the honor of being the first to hold this post since the great American prelate rode horseback through the vast wilderness of his parish, “a poet and philosopher soaring in the high reason of his fancies, with his gar- land and his singing robes about him.” The church built by Father McManus was already too small for the growing congregation of Saint John’s and one of Father Rosensteel’s first duties was to erect the third church, which now stands on this hallowed ground. The old graveyard had encroached so much on the site given by Mrs. Carroll that Father Rosensteel built about a half mile distant. The church was finished early in 1894, and dedicated on April 29 of that year by Cardinal Gibbons. Bishop Keane, rector of the Catholic University, preached a masterly sermon. Father Rosensteel continues in charge of this church, which holds the honorable record of one hundred and thirty-seven years of active existence. The old graveyard is tended by gentle hands and here may be found the names of the brave pioneers, abandoned long cruel years without spiritual nourishment or guidance, who fought the good fight and kept the faith the Carrolls, Neales, Fenwicks, Brents, Diggeses and Morgans. Within the enclosure where many generations of the Brents are sleeping may be seen the tombstone which marks the grave of Archbishop Carroll’s mother. It bears the simple inscription:
“Sacred to the memory of Eleanor Carroll, relict of Daniel Carroll, Esquire. She died on the third of February, in the year 1796 aged ninety-two years.”
Another colonial shrine, the Queen’s Chapel represented in the modern inheritor of its tradition, is the neat brick church of Saint Francis de Sales in the village of Langdon, District of Columbia. Tradition assigns an early date for the founding of Queen’s chapel. It is claimed that for ~most a century Catholics residing on the land where the Catholic University and its affiliated colleges are gracefully outlined against the horizon, all of the villages of Langdon, Brookland and Eckington and far away into the farm country on every side, received occasional spiritual solace at this shrine. Supplementing tradition is the will of Richard Queen, filed at Upper Marlborough in 1794, a copy of which may be seen in the Baltimore records. “I give and bequeath,” says this venerable instrument, “to my friend Right Reverend John Carroll Bishop of Baltimore, his heirs and assigns forever, the remaining members of the Roman Catholic church, two acres of land where the Roman Catholic church now stands, being part of a tract of land called ‘The Enclosure.’ My intention and will is that these said two acres of land be solely employed and used for the religious purposes of the Roman Catholic church.” How long before the pious Richard Queen made this will Queen’s Chapel had been used for parochial purposes is a subject of lively controversy between historians of all shades of religious opinion. According to tradition among the old residents of this section handed down to their descendants, it was coeval with the coming of the Queens from the Bladensburg region to the Enclosure in 1721. The Queens came into p05- session of their land under patent issued by Leonard Calvert in 1657 They had enormous holdings called Haddock Hills, the Barbados and the Seaman’s delight, all of which recall the times when the drowsy old town of Bladensburg was a smart seaport and the Queens were a bold and rollicking nautical people. When the elder Richard Queen built his mansion in the pleasant wooded hills of Langdon, he followed the Catholic custom and set aside one wing as a chapel. After his family had increased in patriarchal style, he moved the chapel into an outbuilding, ostensibly a smoke house. Here a huge bell swung in the penal days which summoned the slaves from the tobacco fields but which also gave signal when a priest journeyed up from Whitemarsh to say Mass. Like the ancient belfry of Bruges, Queen’s chapel was thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt. It suffered during all the wars which convulsed the country and was a victim of incendiaries during revolutionary times. Again when the British troops came over from Bladensburg in 1814, and the third time during the war between the states when the Union troops believed the Queens were aiding the Southern cause. The present church of Saint Francis de Sales of which Rev. August M. Mark is pastor, is a compact brick building with a sloping roof of slate and a wide hospitable porch. It was erected about less than three years ago and is rapidly regaining the ancient prestige which Queen’s chapel long held among the churches of the District of Columbia.
Before the founding of Georgetown College in 1789, Catholics in the immediate vicinity of Washington depended on the chapel in the Notley Young mansion. When George Washington came in March, 1791, to close the land contracts for the site of the capital city which bears his name he took lodgings at Suter’s tavern, a one-story frame house in Georgetown. The mother city of Washington was then a thriving seaport doing a large business in the exportation of to- bacco. It had been founded in 1751 at the juncture of time made famous by Holmes-“Snuffy old drone from the German hive”-and that Hanoverian monarch of very moderate ability is honored in its name. Tradition claims an old chapel about Upper Georgetown and there was a venerated graveyard which showed tombstones dating back to 1762, which with the remains they marked were later moved to the cemetery near the College Walks. After Georgetown College had been established, the chapel was used for parochial purposes until Trinity church, founded in 1792, was ready for occupancy. Valuable details about the founding of Trinity church are contained in the Woodstock letters and in the Baltimore annals. The deed by which Bishop Carroll purchased the site is on file in Baltimore and shows that John ThrelkeTd in 1787 yielded title, but at such a low figure that he virtually bestowed it upon the church. Father Francis Xavier Neale, the first pastor of Holy Trinity Church, stands out luminously against the shadowy background of other workers in this field. His memory deserves to be called blessed because he was the first Catholic pastor to keep a register, an inadequate one from the modern viewpoint, but still it has the honor of being the very first vital statistics dealing with the District of Columbia. Francis Neale came of illustrious ancestry, and like his contemporaries the Carrolls, Brents, Fenwicks and others he received his education at Liege and Saint Omer’s. He was the direct descendant of the doughty Captain James Neale who came to the Palatinate in 1641. Captain Neale’s plantation was a vast tract near the Wicomico river and was surveyed for his settlement in 1642. He was privy-councilor of Maryland and rendered eminent service to the lord proprietor. One of his daughters, Ilenrietta Maria Neale, was a famous belle in her day and married into the equally honorable family of Jenkins, which had been located at the head of the Saint Mary’s River since 1660.
Father Francis Neale, brother of Leonard, second archbishop of Baltimore, and of Charles, another illustrious missionary priest, was born in Charles County June 3, 1756. He was ordained at Liege on April 3, 1788, and returned at once to Maryland, where he began parochial duties about Georgetown, Washington and down the Potomac River. He was at Georgetown College from the beginning of its history and was afterwards its president. The venerable manuscript in which Father Neale kept his register is a yellow paper-backed book almost crumbling to pieces and the entries are becoming obliterated. Its contents have never been printed, though Rev. Edward I. Devitt has such a paper in contemplation. Father Neale’s first entry is in 1795 and like a prudent husbandman he gives a list of pew-holders and the amount he received from each. On the subject of pew rent, some old letters at Woodstock show that this was a troublesome question to this pioneer pastor. He had given a lien on this source of revenue to Alexander Doyle, who built his church, and that thrifty merchant experienced much difficulty in collecting the same. Trinity church on January 1, 1795, according to Father Neale counted the following pew-holders who had paid in full:
|Mrs. Sims||7/6 (seven shillings, six pence.)|
|Old Mrs. Fenwick||7/6|
|Mr. Johnson||3/9 all paid.|
Thomas Bowling is recorded as owing 15/11 for pew Tent. Father Neale further records that he had said a Mass for Mary Pike, three Masses for old Chapman and two for H. Medley. The first marriage record is dated January 1, 1795, and reads:
“Married in the College church, David Thomas to Phyllis a negro slave, property of Elizabeth Coyle of Georgetown, Witness James.”
The next, dated January 29, 1795, says:
“Married Joseph Saunders and Ann Branson living in Georgetown, the former of Catholic parents, the latter a convert. Witnesses George Fenwick J. Greenwell and James Simpson, Signed F. Neale, pastor.”
The first baptismal record entry is February 1, 1795:
“William James baptized, born December 22, 1794 of James and Ann James living in Georgetown. Pater hereticus. Godmother Charlotte Pierce.
“On February 2, 1795, Jean Power baptized, born in Montgomery County Maryland November 26, 1794 of Francis and Abby Power. Godmother Mary Clark.
“February 14, 1795, Thomas Cecil baptized, born December 9, 1794 of William and Jean Cccii living in Georgetown, godmother Dorothy Coome.”
Father Neale died at Saint Thomas Manor in 1837. He had re-entered the Society of Jesus after its establishment in this country and served as the first master of novices.
Of the original proprietors of the land on which the city of Washington is built, Robert Peter, David Burnes, James McCubbin Lingan, Uriah Forest, Benjamin Stoddert, Notley Young, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, Overton Carr, Thomas Beale of Georgetown, Charles Beatty, Anthony Holmead, William Young, Edward Pierce, Abraham Young, James Pierce and William Prout, Carroll and all the Youngs were Catholics and their holdings were the most extensive and important, not even excepting those of the canny Scotchman, David Burnes. Of those who almost at once acquired holdings through inheritance or purchase, Robert Morris, Samuel Blodgett, William Bailey, Samuel Davidson, William Deakins, Jr., James Greenleaf, Thomas Johnson, Robert Lingan, Dominick Lynch, John Nicholson, John H. Stone, Comfort Sands, Benjamin Oden, John P. Van Ness, George Walker and the legal guardians of Elizabeth Wheeler, Lynch, Nicholson and Sands were Catholics as were the Wheeler heirs who inherited the rights of Abraham Young.
Little more than three years after the government had purchased from these proprietors, on April 17, 1794, Father Anthony Caffery or McCaffery purchased lots 5 and 6 of block 376 in the original plat, bounded by Ninth and Tenth and F and G streets, “for the use of the Roman Catholic congregation worshipping in Saint Patrick’s church and for their use forever.” Father Caffery paid eighty pounds sterling for his ground and deeded it to Bishop Carroll in September, 1804. Afterwards Saint Patrick’s obtained by gift and purchase all of the lots in the same square from 5 to 15, and these deeds are entered in the old folio which contains the beginnings of the federal city. It is a subject of regret that so little is known of Father Anthony Caffery. John Gilmary Shea in his “Life and Times of Archbishop Carroll” assigns no date for Father Caffery’s arrival in Washington. Father William F. Clark, S.J., says that Catholics had first worshipped in this part of Washington in the second story of a brick house on the corner of Tenth and E streets and the inference is that Father Caffery found a congregation awaiting him and that soon after he set about getting a church ready. Of the period between the date of his first purchase, 1794, and the date of his departure for Ireland in 1805, there is no definite record. It is not even clearly shown that he ever built a church. Father Clark before mentioned says that the second pastor, Rev. William Matthews, moved the church from E street to F, where it remained until Rev. Jacob Ambrose Walters again moved the site to its present location, on Tenth between F and G streets. Where the solemn Gothic walls of Saint Patrick’s and its parochial buildings beat back the struggle and strife of the city, in its busiest section, there was a little more than a hundred years ago a sylvan spot which was the delight of all beholders.-” There was,” says Christian Hines in “Early Recollections of Washington City,” “a most excellent spring near where Saint Patrick’s church now stands, which was called the Burnes Spring and subsequently Saint Patrick’s spring. Here on a summer evening the Burnes family and their guests would gather under the great oaks and amuse themselves swinging from the branches and by other sports and diversions. Here also, close by was the lovely garden called the ‘Spring Garden’ by its proximity to this water which was cool and clear and pleasant to the taste and moreover had good medicinal qualities.”
Father Caffery departed from Saint Patrick’s and from the country in 1805 and his successor, Father William Matthews, ruled its destinies for nearly fifty years. Father Matthews enjoys the distinction of having been the first Marylander to be elevated to the priesthood and the fifth priest ordained by Bishop Carroll in Baltimore. He is the parochial patriarch of Washington City proper and is a giant among his contemporaries. In the nursery and kindergarten days of the republic, he possessed the restless spirit of progress and the vital energy which the age demanded. He was parish priest of all the city and to this heavy burden he added the presidency of George-town College during a crucial period of its existence. Father Matthews built the frame church and replaced it with the brick, known as old Saint Patrick’s. He laid the foundations of what is now Gonzaga College and founded Saint Vincent’s orphanage. This splendid institution for years occupie& the site of Woodward and Lothrop’s great emporium and is now established in spacious buildings on the estate of Kate Chase Sprague near Eckington. Father Matthews was a native of Charles County and made his ecclesiastical studies at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. In one hundred and seventeen years’ history Saint Patrick’s has possessed but seven pastors. After Fathers Caffery and Matthews comes Rev. Timothy O ‘Toole from 1854 to 1860. Rev. Jacob Ambrose Walter from 1860 to 1894. Rev. John Gloyd from 1894 to 1901. Rev. Dennis J. Stafford from 1901 to 1908. The present pastor, Rev. William T. Russell, assumed charge in February, 1908.
Father Walter replaced the brick structure built by Father Matthews about 1808 at the corner of Tenth and F by the splendid gray stone church on Tenth. Dr. Stafford added the fine line of parochial buildings half way down the block on G street towards Ninth. Father Walter’s name is one of the most venerated in recent Catholic annals. He was pastor of Saint Patrick’s and did heroic service for his country during the sad period from 1860 to 1865. A lineal descendent of those pathetic confessors of the faith, the Arcadians, he is a type of all that is truly Catholic in that heart-rending chapter of history. His life was the virtual fulfilment of the law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and thy whole soul and thou must love thy neighbor as thyself.” His almost divine compassion to the poor led him to establish the first branch of Saint Vincent de Paul Society in this city and to live in poverty and privation in order to collect funds for its maintenance. His history is best told by the testimony of hundreds whom he rescued from poverty, sin and despair. In the busy street where the church stands which is his monument his memory lingers like a precious ointment.
“Fairer seems the city and its sunshine seems more fair
That he once had trod its pavement, that he once had breathed its air.”
John Joseph Keane, successively bishop of Richmond, first rector of the Catholic University and now retired archbishop of Dubuque was an assistant priest at Saint Patrick’s under Father Walter. The eloquent voice of Doctor Stafford passed into the eternal silence on January 2, 1808. His memory is cherished by countless admirers and there is a well-organized movement in progress to erect his statue in one of the public parks of Washington. Doctor Russell, the present pastor, holds a place among the clerical literati of Washington. He has recently published a useful contribution to Maryland colonial history, “The Land of Sanctuary.”
Many historians, among them John Gilmary Shea, assert that Barry Chapel on Half street west and O street south was the first edifice erected for Catholic worship in the City of Washington. James Barry of Baltimore possessed a large fortune and much of it towards developing the Catholic church in the new capital. He was the close friend of Bishop Carroll and his confidential adviser on business matters. Students who seek the romantic recall his name in connection with an incident of which Bishop Carroll wrote him from Baltimore on December the 30th, 1803.
“You will have heard before this of my having officiated in uniting Jerome Bonaparte to Miss Patterson on Saturday last. I wish the young lady well but cannot help fearing that she may not find all the comforts she expects.”
Barry’s Chapel served the Catholics about Greenleaf’s Point for some years, but its entire history is very vague. Some workmen were excavating about the site of this shrine at the time when Saint Dominic’s church was being built. They unearthed the corner stone and it was reverently imbedded in the foundations of the beautiful Dominican church in South Washington. The following inscription was copied om the stone and is preserved in Saint Dominic’s rectory.
“In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
The first stone of a small Roman Catholic church is laid in the city of Washington in the year of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ 1806 and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin under the title and name of Saint Mary’s. Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Erected by and at the charge of James Barry.”
Father Matthews at Saint Patrick’s left a few entries dating from 1806 and it may be inferred that the first church of Saint Patrick’s the frame structure, was built prior to Barry’s chapel. There are fragments of an old register which says:
“The following children of Samuel Bacon and Sarah Dixon his wife were baptized by me but omitted to be recorded at the same time. Anna Bacon, horn February 17, 1806, Caroline born July 12, 1808. Samuel born July 8, 1811; Peter born September 25, 1813. Signed W. Matthews pastor.”
The Washington guide of 1810 mentions Saint Patrick’s of that date as a brick church, so that the weight of evidence is that Father Matthews had erected the first or frame church on the corner of Tenth and F streets before Mr. Barry had completed his chapel on O street west.
Saint Peter’s on the corner of Second and C streets S.E. is the second parish church erected in the limits of Washington City. Daniel Carroll of Duddington had given a tract of land to his brother and this formed part of the holdings of the parish. Nicholas Young contributed an entire square for a cemetery. The corner stone was laid bv Archbishop Mareschal in 1817 and the first Mass was said on October 4, 1821. The first pastor was Rev. James Lucas. One of the many distinguished pastors, the Rev. Jeremiah O’Sullivan, was chosen Bishop of Mobile, Alabama, while serving in this church and was consecrated there in 1885.
Catholic development in the District of Columbia now enters a Rip Van Winkle stage. There is little to be recorded for the next quarter of a century. A unique little volume in Georgetown College Library called the “Catholic Laity’s Directory for the year of Our Lord 1817,” is an interesting study of this period. The title page says that the book is published by permission of Right Reverend Bishop Connolly and that it will appear annually. There is promise of biography of clergymen and an account of the churches and benevolent institutions in the ‘United States and Canada, but this is a false hope, since the publisher, M. Field, 177 Bowery street, New York, found it more convenient to indulge in philosophic generalities than to busy himself getting facts and figures. There are sixty-two pages in the book, mostly highly edifying but totally irrelevant spiritual reading, while less than a page is devoted to the churches. The District of Columbia is included in the following paragraph which is the sum total of information contained in this first Catholic directory.
“There are one or more Catholic churches in Philadelphia, Washington, Norfolk, Richmond and Alexandria, Virginia. Albany, Boston, Kentucky, Charleston, South Carolina. Eastport, Maine. Pittsburg and Conewaga, Penn. Emmittsburg, Hlagerstown,. Newton, and Saint Mary’s, Maryland.”
Georgetown College is mentioned as being in a flourishing condition and Georgetown Convent, a nunnery kept by the ladies of the Visitation, is described. The next Catholic directory was published in 1822 under the auspices of the church authorities. It is a more pretentious volume and gives the usual information found in such chronicles. From this date at intervals of four or five years, the Catholic directory has made a regular appearance. The volumes have grown larger and more comprehensive each year and since 1850 have been published annually. Nothing shows more conclusively the growth of the Catholic church in the United States than to compare the directory of 1822, the first authoritative issue, with the huge volume of more than a thousand pages which gives Catholic statistics of 1910.
There are now sixteen parish churches in Washington and six suburban, all the offspring of these first churches. Saint Patrick’s parish and Saint Peter’s’ Saint Matthew’s, Saint Mary’s German church, Saint Aloysius’, Saint Stephen’s, the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s were the first subdivision of the original parishes. Linked to each of these parishes is a name which is venerated in a special way. Father Charles White at St. Matthew’s, an ardent champion of education, was besides being a zealous and devoted pastor a scholar of wide celebrity. While serving as pastor of St. Matthew’s Father White translated into English, Chateaubriand’s “Genius of Christianity” and his work remains yet the standard English version. Father Alig was beloved of the Germans in this city and his memory is green in the congregation of St. Mary’s, which he founded. One of the most scholarly priests in the Archdiocese, orator, essayist, historian and theologian, Charles Warren Curier, was foursome years pastor of St. Mary’s. Father Lynch is revered in St. Aloysius’ parish and in Gonzaga College where he labored for almost half a century. At St Stephen’s and the Immaculate Conception parishes, the names of Father McNally and Father McCarthy are hallowed.
Two events of supreme importance in Catholic annals have occurred in the past twenty-five years, the establishment of the Apostolic delegation in 1893 and of the Catholic University which opened its theological department in 1889. The first home of the Apostolic delegation was on Second and I streets N.W., a residence famous in social annals. Mgr. Francis Satolli, afterwards a cardinal, was the first delegate sent by the Holy See to the Catholic church in the United States. He was succeeded by Mgr. Sebastian Martinelli, also elevated to the cardinalate. The present papal envoy, Mgr. Diomede Falconio, moved the delegation in 1906 from I street to the handsome residence which the archbishops had erected at 1811 Biltmore street in the old Clifbourne tract.
The Catholic University occupies the estate of Sidney, described in the oldest Washington annals as “three miles from the general post office,” and the home of J. Harrison Smith, founder and first editor of the National Intclligencer. “The mansion” (now the Paulist House of Studies), says Warden, one of the earliest descriptive writers of the capital, “was approached by a long avenue of sycamore and locust trees and the entire way thither from the city was through a woodland of wild and romantic beauty, filled with singing birds and strewn with flowers as soon as spring had dawned.” Nearby in the deep hollow was a chalybeate spring and all through the summer throngs of gallants and their ladies rode out to drink the healing waters. Thomas Jefferson had unbounded faith in this spring and many a time he tied his horse to a nearby tree and chatted politics with Harrison Smith or some chance acquaintance while he quaffed great draughts and then made his negro servant carry home a jugful.
John Gilmary Shea states that “when the Rev. Mr. Carroll landed in 1774, there was not so far as I have been able to learn, a single public Catholic church in all of Maryland.” The Catholic population in 1790 was estimated by Bishop Carroll as less than ten thousand, and there were twenty-two priests. Now, just one hundred and thirty-seven years after the founding of Saint John’s at Forest Glen, there are in the arch-diocese of Baltimore, which means all of Maryland and the District of Columbia, 260,000 Catholics, 535 priests and one hundred and ninety-three churches and chapels having resident pastors.