'Maryland: First Catholic Colony' centers on Bishop Carroll


October 19, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

John Carroll was a man of high abilities, but it didn't hurt to be in the right place at the right time. In 1776, he and Benjamin Franklin were members of a mission to enlist Canada in the American Revolution (it failed). But when they got to Montrea, Franklin wasn't feeling well, so Carroll accompanied him back to Philadelphia, and the two became friends.

Eight years later, after America had won its independence, the papal nuncio at Versailles was instructed to ask around about who might be a good candidate for vicar apostolic of the Catholic church in the new nation. In France at the time was Benjamin Franklin, who apparently put in a good word for John Carroll, and he got the job. Five years later American clergy elected him the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States. He rewarded those who put their confidence in him with 26 years more of accomplishments for the young American church, and commissioned the Catholic Cathedral, Baltimore's greatest work of architecture.

Bishop Carroll is the centerpiece of "Maryland: First Catholic Colony," an exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the establishment of the archdiocese of Baltimore in 1789. Unexpectedly, it doesn't tell the story of the archdiocese over the last 200 years. Instead, it deals with the period from the establishment of the colony of Maryland under the Catholic Lords Baltimore through the election of Bishop Carroll and his tenure, and ends with his death in 1815.

But curator Romaine Somerville (former director of the Maryland Historical Society) made the right decision, for the early part of this essentially historical exhibit is far the most interesting for a general audience.

It begins in 1624, when George Calvert, secretary of state to King James I of England, returned to the Roman Catholic church into which he had been born. As a Catholic he could no longer hold public office in England, but the king made him first Baron of Baltimore and promised a grant of land in the American colonies. George's son Cecil received the grant from Charles I in 1632 and sent to the new colony a group of people who landed in 1634 and built a settlement at St. Mary's City.

The first part of the show, through the first half century of the colony, contains most of the more interesting works from an aesthetic and a historical point of view. They include a striking portrait of Charles I by Gerrit van Honthorst, borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery in London; the elaborately illuminated patent creating George Calvert Lord Baltimore; a 17th century baroque tabernacle believed to have been used at St. Mary's City, and the 1649 Act of Religious Toleration guaranteeing freedom of religion in the colony, but only for Christians.

After the Glorious Revolution in England in 1689, Maryland became a royal colony, the Church of England became the official religion and Catholics' rights were suppressed until the Revolution. Catholics nevertheless prospered, including the Carroll family, which gave us Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Bishop Carroll.

The final segment of the show, after establishment of the archdiocese, deals largely with such matters as the establishment of orders and schools, and is of much less general interest. But at the end it picks up again, with Bishop Carroll's commissioning of a design for the first Catholic Cathedral (now the Basilica of the Assumption) from the great architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Here are Latrobe's own renderings of Baltimore's greatest building, so the show ends on a high note. Not all of it is for everybody, but some is.

'Catholic Colony

When: Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 27.

Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument St.

Call: 685-3750.

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