A Baltimore visit finds strong roots of church American Catholicism bloomed in atmosphere of religious tolerance

October 09, 1995|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN STAFF

Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore tomorrow will bring him to the very roots of American Catholicism.

When Cecil Calvert and his tiny company landed on the shores of St. Clement's Island in 1634, they established a colony that would produce a long list of firsts for the church and would nourish freedoms enjoyed by succeeding generations of Americans of all faiths.

For nearly two centuries, Maryland would be home to the largest concentration of Catholics in the new land. They would elect the first American bishop, form the first diocese and archdiocese, build the first American cathedral, and establish the first seminary and order of nuns.

Baltimore would become the center of power in American Catholicism and dominate its development into the 20th century. A series of national councils of bishops convened in Baltimore issued decrees and pastoral letters that guided Catholics. One of them in 1885 approved the Baltimore catechism, which generations of Catholic children would have to memorize.

The first archdiocese would be home to the first parish devoted exclusively to worship by black Catholics and to the first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton.

But the church's growth has not been a smooth, or unblemished, rush into the future. The church has been rocked by persecution, was slow to respond to slavery and segregation, and was transformed by the diversity of repeated waves of new Catholic immigrants.

Maryland's English-Catholic founders, facing an antagonistic Protestant majority in the 17th century, established religious tolerance and the separation of church and state as the best protections for them and any other faith.

Prosperous and respected by the 18th century, church leaders counseled fellow Catholics to embrace democracy and to beware of political ties to Rome. They practiced a simple, quiet Catholicism in harmony with their Protestant neighbors. Many would become wealthy planters and slave owners; some would rise to form a civic and social elite with continuing influence in Maryland.

But when waves of Catholic immigrants came ashore in the 19th century, they were not always welcome. Most were poor, sick and jobless. They spoke no English and brought with them an elaborate, Old-World Catholicism that was foreign even to Catholics who were native-born.

The church wove for them a community fabric of ornate `f churches, religious schools, social and economic services that assisted them with their transition to American life, and shielded them from a sometimes hostile non-Catholic majority.

Together, these two Catholic traditions have established a complex framework upon which the American church has grown.

The Calverts' strokes of genius

When the Ark and the Dove landed in St. Mary's County in 1634, Catholics comprised less than 5 percent of England's population. Suspected of political loyalty to the pope rather than the king, they were prohibited from worshiping in public. Instead, they worshiped simply, in homes or on the property of wealthy patrons.

There were too few Catholics in the colony for them to prosper alone, explained Brother Thomas W. Spalding in "The Premier See," his 1989 history of the Baltimore Archdiocese. Toleration of other faiths was vital to guarantee Maryland's tranquillity and commercial success. This was the Calverts' first stroke of genius.

Their second was to deny the church any privilege in the colony.

Jesuit missionaries sought the same political sway and immunities they enjoyed in parts of Europe, where church and state were joined.

The Calverts refused. They insisted that the Jesuits operate under the law, like everyone else. And there the separation of church and state took root.

The arrangement came under attack during the English Civil War, and Maryland Catholics lost their religious and political rights in 1689. In England's wars with Catholic France, all Catholics were again suspect.

After France was ousted from North America in 1763, Catholics regained their rights, and many, with names like Carroll, Digges, Neale, Fenwick, Matthews and Gardiner, became wealthy and influential. Joined later by prosperous French and Irish settlers, or linked by marriage with European nobility, they would form a Catholic elite with considerable civic and economic power.

The English Catholics mixed comfortably with non-Catholics. They worshiped modestly, in plain churches and in a manner calculated not to offend. Priests wore street clothes and were addressed not as "Father" but, like the Protestants, as "Reverend."

Catholics cast their lot with those seeking independence from Britain. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was elected to the (x Revolutionary Convention in Annapolis, which voted to abolish all religious discrimination. Later elected to the Continental Congress, he was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

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