Maryland's long-standing history of religious tolerance was the very
basis for its establishment when in 1634 the first English colonists
landed on St. Clement's Island seeking religious freedom.
Though Southern Maryland is filled with historic sites, very few can
boast that the original intent and purpose for their institution is
still being carried out today in almost the exact spot as it was nearly
375 years ago. St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne, Md., is one of
those rare exceptions.
Shortly after colonists had established a settlement in St. Mary's City,
a group of Jesuit priests were invited by Clerk of the Court William
Bretton, in 1640, to create a mission on 750-acres known as "Bretton's
Out Letts" located on Newtowne Neck. The property was a fertile
peninsula surrounded by Breton Bay, the Potomac River and St. Clements
Bay. The priests lived in a manor house on the property while serving
the local parishioners in the surrounding area. The manor house also
served as a "School for the Humanities" under a financial grant.
Prior to the colonization of the area, Piscataway and several other
Indian tribes had peacefully occupied the property and the missionaries
would convert some of them to Catholicism. In 1661, when religious
tolerance was more pervasive under the Crown, William Bretton and his
wife donated 1 1/2 acres of land to establish a chapel and cemetery for
the now prospering congregation. In 1668, the Jesuits (known as The
Society of Jesus) purchased 850 acres from the Bretton family for 40,000
pounds of tobacco.
A wood framed church was completed in 1662. A cemetery, which is still
located on the original site, was established alongside the church at
that time. During the late 1600s and into the early 1700s, anti-Catholic
sentiments were making their way from England to the colonies so the
newly built church was abandoned and worship was quietly held in either
the manor house or at the homes of parishioners. Though services never
ceased in Newtowne, it wasn't safe to practice the Catholic faith
publicly for many years and by then the old wooden structure was no
longer a viable place to hold church so it was eventually abandoned.
By 1731, a new chapel was constructed in a new location, closer to the
original manor house. This new building was carefully constructed to not
draw attention to itself as a "Catholic" structure. Its simplistic
appearance, lack of a center aisle, and absence of a crucifix were
intentional in the still religiously volatile colony.
Just 35 years later, in 1767, a two-story brick semi-hexagonal structure
was added to create a choir loft and front vestibule. A matching brick
structure was added to the back of the church in 1816 and served as
living quarters for the residing pastor. The pastor used the downstairs
area to meet with parishioners, and a narrow staircase led to a small
bedroom and library area upstairs. Today, the space serves as both a
confessional and storage space.
The manor house located on the property today is believed to be the
third manor house constructed on the property and dates back to 1789.
Originally a 1 1/2 story structure, it was made into a full two story
building with an attic in the early 1800s. This was a time of great
prosperity for the parish with a working farm, blacksmith shop, flour
mill and other money-making entities flourishing on the property.
By the second half of the 19th century, the missionaries decided to move
away from Newtowne to the county seat in Leonardtown. Worship continued
at St. Francis Xavier, but the missionaries no longer lived in the manor
house, which was now used by local parish families who helped manage the
farm property and its endeavors.
Almost 100 years later in 1967, the last members of the Society of Jesus
left Newtowne. They deeded the church, the manor house and 7 1/2 acres
to the Archdiocese of Washington who still control the property. That
same year, the Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey, noted
the historical significance of St. Francis Xavier and Newtowne Manor for
the Catholic Church as well as its significance to the country and began
the process of restoration.
Funding was provided in the early 1970s to construct a church hall so
that mass could be held while research was done to determine the best
course for restoration of the failing church structure. Experts
undertook a complete archaeological survey of the site to help
accurately date the standing structures, as well as foundations and
various outbuildings on the property. Indian and numerous other
artifacts were unearthed during the excavation. Paint analysis and other
scientific methodologies were employed to provide clues that would aide
During the restoration, while digging under the front vestibule portion
of the church (added in 1767), several graves were unearthed. During
that time it would have been common practice for the priests to be
buried close to the sanctuary as opposed to the cemetery down the road.
The remains were quickly exhumed and re-interred in the church's
On October 21, 1984, after an extensive renovation with the support of
the Archdiocese and the generosity of many parishioners, St. Francis
Xavier was once again a house of worship.
The manor house, which saw its last resident, Miss Susie Delahay, leave
in the 1980s still stands awaiting its own restoration. Though a costly
endeavor to undertake, the hope of local parishioners is that funding
will one day be available to restore it to its former grandeur.
Today, St. Francis Xavier, under the direction of its Pastor Reverend
John S. Mattingly, continues the same mission established so many years
ago. It is a place where Catholic traditions can be freely celebrated
and exalted for the faithful. It continues to honor those who traveled
such a great distance to an unknown land driven by a belief that the
freedom to practice one's religion was a blessing for which any risk was
worth that reward.