The road to religion

Religious Freedom Byway in Maryland charts nation's drive for 'liberty of conscience'

  • St. Clement's Island, where the colonists first landed prior to moving on and establishing St. Mary's City. This is the birthplace of the state and where the story of Religious Freedom begins.
St. Clement's Island, where the colonists first landed… (St. Mary's County Tourism…)
May 09, 2010|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

PORT TOBACCO — The first thing to know about Maryland's Religious Freedom Byway is that religion in Colonial Maryland was rarely free.

"It came at a cost to everybody, Catholics in particular," Sheila Smith told us at the courthouse in Port Tobacco, an 18th-century shipping center 35 miles south of Washington. "They had to have their prayers and services on the sly. Eventually, there were Jews and Quakers and Methodists. Of course, they didn't have an easy time, either."

Smith, the official historian of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco, was one of several guides to make that point as we made our way across Southern Maryland, following the federally recognized route that traces the peregrinations of the state's early European settlers.

Maryland has long promoted itself as the birthplace of American religious freedom, and it is true that Lord Baltimore decreed that his fellow Catholics should be allowed to practice their faith alongside their Protestant neighbors in the colony he founded in Southern Maryland in 1634.

But it is also true that Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, directed that his co-religionists "suffer no scandal nor offense to be given to any of the Protestants … [that] all acts of Roman Catholic religion [be] done as privately as may be … [and that] all the Roman Catholics [be] silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of religion."

Catholics were never the majority in Maryland, and the Calvert family would lose control to Protestants twice in the colony's first 25 years. By the end of the 17th century, the Calvert family's influence had waned, Anglicanism was made the official religion of Maryland, and the capital was moved to Annapolis. Catholics would not be able to worship openly or participate in government again until the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land.

For our drive, we followed an itinerary that Maryland's State Highway Administration has labeled "The Quest for Religious Tolerance," focusing on the early struggle for what Cecil Calvert called "liberty of conscience."

The official itinerary suggests the tour can be completed in a day, which I suppose is technically possible, if one is determined to march from museum to church in an if-it's-2 p.m.-this-must-be-the-Thomas-Stone-National-Historic-Site fashion.

But a family could spend a day exploring Historic St. Mary's City alone, and a solo visitor could pass a contemplative afternoon at St. Ignatius Church in Chapel Point. With our two young daughters in tow, we split the drive into two days.

Journey's start

The journey begins at Historic St. Mary's City, on the site of the fourth English settlement in the Americas, an hour and 45 minutes from Washington down the Southern Maryland peninsula.

The original city — actually more of a rural outpost, home to perhaps 200 year-round residents — reverted to farmland after the capital was moved to Annapolis in 1695. But interest around the 300th anniversary of the settlement in 1934 spurred archaeological and historical work, and today visitors may stroll among reconstructions of the square-rigged Dove, one of two ships that brought the first settlers; Maryland's first State House; inns, a storehouse, a print shop and other buildings.

The result is a living museum on the model of Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, although far less developed. Costumed historical interpreters teach and answer questions about 17th-century olonial life; wooden "ghost frames," erected on original foundations that still are under study, communicate a sense of the size and scale of the settlement.

The visitors center, which provides some useful history on the Calvert family, religious strife in 17th-century England and the founding of the colony called Terra Maria — Mary's Land — makes a good overview for the entire journey.

A modern re-creation of the 1667 brick chapel shows how Catholic settlers might have worshipped — when they were allowed to do so. The structure was actually the second at that location; a wooden chapel on the site was burned in an attack by Protestant outsiders in 1645.

The brick chapel was ordered locked in 1704 and dismantled. No plans, drawings or written descriptions of the original structure survive, but archaeological work has provided clues about its size, shape and building materials, and church traditions of the time suggest some of the appointments: an altar and tabernacle, a pulpit and a communion rail; paintings on the walls, but no pews on the floors.

Stops along the way

An hour's drive from Historic St. Mary's City, St. Clement's Island Museum in Colton's Point fills in the details on the settlers, with a particular focus on the voyage of the Ark and the Dove and their arrival in Maryland.

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