Faithful to Family

Every two years, descendants of those who brought Catholicism to the New World in Maryland and those who took it west to Kentucky, meet to share and compare family looks and history.

July 22, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The Goughs, the Mattinglys, the Mudds, the Abells. Their names grace mailboxes, businesses, church rolls and community newspapers throughout Southern Maryland.

Nearly 640 miles away, the same names permeate the "Holy Land," a tri-county region in central Kentucky where thousands of Roman Catholic Marylanders from Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties settled after the Revolutionary War.

Yesterday, 600 people with those surnames and scores more in common came to Leonardtown from around the country for the National Reunion of Descendants of Maryland to Kentucky, a biennial event held in one state or the other since 1990.

Through Sunday, Maryland participants will visit with relatives that are all the more special because, although they left, they never forgot their origins.

The "frontier Catholicism" of their ancestors - which carried as many as a third of Maryland's Catholics westward to Kentucky from the 1780s to 1815 - has generated enduring cross-country kinships and a genealogical gold mine for progeny in both states.

Even if family members haven't met before this weekend, they can, after more than two centuries, spot one another in a crowd.

"The funny thing is we all look alike," says Becky Proffitt, reunion organizer and vice president of the Leonardtown council. "The Abells look like Abells; the Mattinglys look like Mattinglys."

Through the weekend, Kentucky and Southern Maryland inflections and dialects will co-mingle as distant cousins talk genealogy, listen to lectures, visit historic sites, feast on local delicacies such as stuffed ham and crabs at a Saturday banquet in the Hollywood volunteer fire department hall.

On Sunday, they will attend mass on St. Clement's Island in the Potomac River, where in 1634, the first recorded Roman Catholic Mass in the New World was celebrated by those who arrived from England aboard the Ark and the Dove.

For Proffitt, 73, and other reunion faithful, getting to know Kentucky kin is a way of getting to know one's self. "My first trip out to Kentucky, I went to St. Thomas Church in Bardstown, and in the back pew were all these essays written by fifth-graders," Proffitt says. "We sat and read how their families got to Kentucky. We thought, `My gosh, these people know more about St. Mary's County than we do and more on why they came out there.' That was what was so amazing, and they were school kids!"

Karen Fowler Caldwell, of Lebanon, Ky., was among the reunion participants. When she drove into St. Mary's County for the first time several years ago, she immediately spied a street called Fowler, her maiden name. "Even though I had never been there, I had an eerie sense of home," says Caldwell, a 40-year-old computer specialist at a high school.

"Oh yes, it is very true," says Gerald Thompson, an avid genealogist who first proposed the reunion. "It's definitely the same gene pool and it's very, very odd to travel across the country almost 1,000 miles and drive into an area and start seeing the same names on signs and mailboxes and the shops as if you were in Lebanon, Springfield or Bardstown."

All of his life, "I've known we were Maryland Catholics. I think that's very unusual," says Thompson, 60. The administrator in Kentucky's local records program traces his and his wife's lineage back to their colonial Maryland ancestors.

The idea for the reunion sprung from a smaller family gathering in 1988, Thompson says. The thought was: Why not invite families from "all of the different Catholic lines" to come together and share their family histories?

He never anticipated that 500 relatives would turn up at the first reunion in Nelson County, Ky., brandishing "photo albums, our books and charts and our family group sheets." Copy machines, tape and video recorders, and laptops whirred overtime as participants debriefed one another, scoured libraries, visited family homesteads and took measure of the land to which their relatives had moved.

Yesterday, as the reunion got underway at the College of Southern Maryland, Doris Beavan Jones, who turns 81 today, studied photos of past get-togethers. She has every intention of attending the next reunion, in Springfield, Ky., said the spry woman, dressed in a crab cap and a Kentucky football T-shirt.

Virginia Keyes, Jeanine Head Miller and John Stanton clustered around a laptop and scanned some of the 80,000 names Keyes has entered into her Family Tree Maker database.

Somewhere along the line, their families have all crossed paths, and if the right names are entered, family branches will connect, the screen will do a little dance and Keyes will give a gleeful whoop. The point of their sleuthing is not only to build a family tree, but to find the "pieces of people's lives that tell the larger story," says Miller, 45.

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