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A Vital Part of the Region’s History. by Judy Colbert
Southern Maryland is steeped in religious history, understandably so because of the state’s religious tolerance policies. You can travel on almost any back road and come across a place of worship that is defined as “the oldest…,” “the oldest continuously…,” or “the oldest brick ….” And the tales that go with these churches help tell the history of Maryland from its inception. The gravestones carry the names of families who settled here, and you’ll find the thirteenth generation of parishioners worshipping on the same grounds as their ancestors. While there are many historical churches in the area, we’ve chosen three to feature.
St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point/Port Tobacco
Among the intriguing things about St. Ignatius are a relic of the Cross--a large piece of wood from the holy cross of Jesus Christ--encased in glass and silver, which Father Andrew White brought over from England and wore around his neck; a mahogany table made in Santo Domingo; and a tunnel from the basement of the servants house to the river that may have been part of the Underground Railroad or just a convenient way to travel between the church and the river during inclement weather. Funds raised on the property, originally about 4,000 acres, helped start Georgetown University and all other Catholic churches throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
Father Andrew White, S.J., who founded the church and named the area Chapel Point, sailed with other Jesuits on the Ark and the Dove to help found an English colony. St. Thomas Manor, also on the property, has been a Jesuit residence since its construction, also in 1641. After the 1773-1805 suppression of Jesuits, the men who stayed at St. Ignatius took their vows again in 1805 under a White Russian superior, thus making St. Ignatius and the residence the oldest in the United States and probably the world.
Father Sal Jordan, pastor of St. Ignatius, grew up in Berkshire, Maryland, and remembers his father bringing the family to Chapel Point for a day’s outing and to enjoy a roller skating rink down the hill, not realizing that he would return as pastor years later. Families still visit to enjoy the view overlooking the Port Tobacco and Potomac Rivers, some 120 feet below, the historic herb and butterfly garden, the Way of the Cross Garden, and the tranquil setting of the outdoor Shrine of Our Lady.
As with old churches, the first one burned, in late 1866, and this building was erected in 1868, with the bricks of the Church, house, and chapel laid in a Flemish Bond, with a header in between each of the two stretches, a popular style in Colonial days.
The stained glass windows are “new,” dating from after the fire; the original windows would have been clear or smoked glass. The ladies of the church and their families have created needlepoint kneelers, designed by Jeanne Bauer, a Fredericksburg, Virginia artist, and reflect themes based on history, theology, architecture, landscape, and human interest.
Some 600 families now call St. Ignatius home, double the number since 1993. Activities include summer concerts, a Christmas musical presentation by choir members from numerous area churches, and some times as many as three weddings a week.
Tours of the church, Manor House, and the grounds of the parish may be arranged through the hospitality group.
St. George’s Episcopal, Parish Church, Valley Lee
As a branch of England’s Anglican church, perhaps it seems proper that St. Andrews has an Irish priest. It’s almost a tradition. The Reverend Moses Tabbs, from Dublin, Ireland, came here in 1752, and two of the twelve children by Rev. Tabb and his wife, Sarah, stayed in the area and married into local families.
Father Christopher Halliday, or Father Christopher, and his wife, the Reverend Paula Halliday, the rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, arrived in Maryland in March 2000, from County Wicklow, Ireland about thirty miles south of where Tabbs lived. Old churches are nothing new to the Hallidays. Father Christopher’s last church, in Glendalough, was at least a thousand years old, with the “new” church made from the stones of the “old” church, a cathedral, built around 920.
Poplar Hill probably was the home of two prior, frame churches that burned, sitting about 50 feet north of the current, brick church that was built about 1799. More than 420 marked graves are in the churchyard, and some 14 of St. George’s fifty-plus rectors are believed to be buried there, although only seven have been located.
Alterations in 1884, included the installation of the stained glass windows, and occurred again in 1942 when Dr. John Shadrick gave the brick bell tower, replacing two steeples that had been on the church in previous days, but were removed, probably because the roof couldn’t safely hold their weight. Another renovation took place in 1958, and four seventeenth and eighteenth century stones were placed in the new brick floor. Although the church now has electricity, the original oil lights are still on the side walls.
The Reverends Halliday like their new home, and have had only a few problems acclimating to their new parish. Obviously, the people drive on a different side of the road, and the weather is warmer and more humid. The big differences, he says, are the subtle nuances in language, where the same words mean different things. “The Episcopal church is the same worldwide, so we sing the same hymns,” he says, “but this is the third time in my career I’ve had to learn the same ‘old’ tune to the same songs.
All Saints Episcopal Church, Sunderland
( Visit the Official All Saints Episcopal Church website )
When Emily Hyde, whose family tree names include Claggett, Gant, Bourne, Chew, and Blake, attended a reunion-type service at All Saints Episcopal Church a few years ago, her children and their children were in attendance, representing the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth generations of a family who attended the same church. Two of her ancestors were on the 1774 building committee, including the Rector Thomas John Claggett, the first Bishop ordained on American soil. Claggett gave the sundial in the churchyard for thanksgiving for being called to be a bishop. An act of the Maryland legislature, in 1774, authorized “three equal assessments of tobacco to purchase an acre of ground creating a new church… to be collected by the sheriff of Calvert County.”
When the English decided that this was going to be an Anglican colony, they established 30 churches around Maryland, all in 1692. At All Saints Episcopal Church, the original church buildings were log cabins, and lower on the property. There’s a group of trees now where the first church stood, and oral tradition says there are graves of slaves there, but it will take a major archeological dig to determine if there is validity to such stories.
The church sits atop a hill, surrounded by huge Canadian Hemlocks. It’s suspected that the bricks in the 1774-constructed church were made locally, but they may have been sent from England as ship ballast and hauled to the church by oxcart from the port at Lower Marlboro.
The church flourished until the 1950s, when the building’s condition reflected the sparse membership of fifteen families. Then, Father John E. Owens, and the remaining members decided the church should be repaired, they should have a full-time rector, and look for new members. On All Saints Day, November 1, 1952, everyone celebrated the re-opening of the church. Extensive renovations have been made to the church, including converting the old box-style pews, where people stood or brought their own chairs, to single pews, with benches and the height of the pews was cut down by a third so people could see. However, the doors were left on the pews.
The Reverend Stephanie Chase Wilson is Rector now. Originally from Boston, she’s the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Episcopal priests. She asks to be called Stephanie, rather than Mother Stephanie because she feels she’s the spiritual leader of the church members, not their mother. She does wear a collar, though, so there’s no mistaking who she is.
Each one of these churches is worth stopping by for worship services or just to visit and take in the history.
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