5 Things to Know About Catholic History in Maryland

Catholic History in Maryland

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Welcome back to Tenacious Genealogy! My last post on this subject, I focused on the lives of Huguenots – French Protestants who came to America to practice their religion freely (among other things). But they weren’t the only religious group to do so – far from it. In light of that, today I’m going to focus on Catholic history in Maryland. Just like French Protestants came to the new world in search of religious freedom, so did English Catholics of the time.

Colonial America defined

Technically, in genealogy (and in history) ‘colonial America’ can mean a lot of things. Many European nations staked their claim in the Americas (North, South, Central, and the Caribbean) starting in the 15th century. For the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the British colonies in North America, existing during most of the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, I’m focusing on Maryland, originally created as a haven for English Catholics.

Catholic History in Maryland

European (especially English) colonies were started for a variety of reasons; these reasons can usually be lumped into either religious and economic pots. While adherents of a variety of Protestant and Reformed religions (as well as non-Christian religions) came to the colonies, so did Catholics. Because, while groups like the Huguenots came due to religious persecution from Catholics in their home country, Catholics also came to America due to religious persecution from Protestants in their home country…
Politics are complicated (said everyone, always) and so is religion. And even more so in Europe and during this time period. Protestants in predominantly Catholic countries were persona no grata and vice versa. So being a Huguenot in France was not fun, but neither was being Catholic in England. If you lived in a place like The Netherlands or one of the many German duchies – it depended on the province or duchy you were in – some were predominantly Protestant and others predominantly Catholic.
Given this pickle of a situation, many leaders of religious groups looked to the Americas to create havens for their particular religious group. The Plymouth Colony was originally for Puritans (though their original intent was to go to Virginia), various settlements in New York, Virginia and South Carolina were for Huguenot refugees, Pennsylvania was supposed to be a haven for Quakers, and Maryland – a haven for English Catholics.

1) Maryland was supposed to be a haven for Catholics… and others 

St. Mary's City Reconstructed Catholic Church
St. Mary’s City Historic District, Reconstructed Catholic Church, July 2009.By Pubdog [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

March 25, 1634, is the day when the first English settlers of Maryland landed on St. Clement’s Island. It was here that the first settlement, St. Mary’s City, was founded. Despite Maryland supposedly being a haven for Catholics, the majority of the first settlers were Protestant. This is, in part, because Maryland was also supposed to be a proving ground for religious toleration. Proof that Protestants (specifically Anglicans) and Catholics could live and work together peaceably. This might seem like common sense nowadays, but back in the 17th century, the idea was radical, revolutionary, and for the most part, untested.

Nowadays, March 25th is a state holiday in Maryland, much like Cesar Chavez Day in California and the first day of deer hunting season in Utah. (Just kidding… kinda). The leader of the colonists was one Leonard Calvert – the brother of the 2nd Lord Baltimore (who had gained the charter for Maryland). This is why Baltimore, Maryland was named such and why many things in Maryland have ‘Calvert’ as part of their name.

Since Maryland was supposed to be not only a haven for Catholics but also a settlement proving that Protestants and Catholics could live together peacefully – a first test of the religious toleration that would later be espoused by America’s Founding Fathers – the first settlers were a mixed religious group. And initially, it worked. (The Puritan settlers, especially from Maryland’s southern neighbor Virginia, got uppity a lot, but Puritans were not big on religious toleration in general.)

2) Maryland is considered to be the birthplace of religious diversity

Despite the original intentions of Maryland being a haven for English Catholics and a heterogeneous religious population, some of the settlers – and their neighbors – weren’t so keen on this idea. From the beginning, you had Puritan and Anglican settlers from Virginia and Quaker settlers from Pennsylvania trying to shake things up.  In 1689, a Puritan by the name of John Coode started an uprising (one of four for him). Part of his excuse for this was that Maryland and the Calvert family had not recognized the new Protestant King and Queen of England (William III and Mary II). He and his forces were victorious and immediately outlawed Catholicism and Anglicanism. (Even though the King and Queen of England would have technically been Anglicans…) Eventually, power returned to the Baltimore family in 1715  but it wasn’t until the American Revolution that full religious toleration would return to Maryland with Maryland’s delegates signing the Declaration of Independence.

3) The colonists in Maryland got along well with the native population – for better or for worse…

The Maryland settlers got along pretty well with the local tribes, trading European goods for the right to ‘own’ what had been Native American land (as opposed to many of their colonial counterparts who just started creating settlements). The unfortunate downside to their amicable relations with the local tribes, however, was disease. (Germ theory wasn’t really taken seriously until the end of the 19th century and Europeans weren’t known for their hygienic practices during this time – hence the prevalence of illness and the decimation of many Native American populations during the 17th and 18th centuries.)

In the case of the Maryland tribes, these diseases took a heavy toll. By the 1870s, one tribe – the Susquehannock (which had been extremely powerful at the time when St. Mary’s City was created), numbered roughly 300.

 4) The Mason-Dixon Line was created between Pennsylvania and Maryland to ease tensions between the Calvert and Penn families (as well as the tension between Catholic and Quaker settlers).

For anyone who has taken American History classes, you’ve heard about the Mason-Dixon Line. In the 19th century, it came into common usage when talking about slave states (and more generally the ‘South’) and free states (more generally the ‘North’) after the issuance of the Missouri Compromise.

But the Mason-Dixon line originated from an agreement between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland in 1767. Long story short, when the King of England was giving out land grants in the Americas, he didn’t specify where boundaries were between the various colonies – which led to conflicts between Maryland (often Catholic) settlers and Pennsylvania (often Quaker) settlers. The most well known of these conflicts is Cresap’s War. In the end, the Penn and Calvert families commissioned the English team of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey a borderline between Maryland, Pennsylvania and also Delaware for good measure.

 5) The only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence was from Maryland

Charles Carroll III was a wealthy Maryland planter and early advocate for American independence. Openly Catholic, he was barred from holding political office, practicing law, or voting in colonial Maryland. Despite this, he was a leader in the state’s move for independence. He was a Maryland delegate to both the Continental Congress and the Confederate Congress (for the Articles of the Confederation which preceded the Constitution) and eventually was one of the first US Senators from Maryland. He was also the longest-lived and last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence – dying in 1832 at the ripe old age of 95.

Genealogical Importance

So why is it important to know the history of Catholics in Maryland? Especially for genealogists? Because Catholics generally kept/keep plentiful records. Births, marriages, deaths, you name it, there are probably church records for it. So if you have family from certain areas where there were many Catholics, you might be more likely to find records on those family members – especially if they were Catholic. This is the case for Maryland, especially, because it was one of the few colonies (and then states) where Catholics were heavily present and among the wealthier classes. So while there were times that they were persecuted by their neighbors, for the most part, they had records that have made their way down to the modern day.

 Related Sources

There are a multitude of sources that any family historian or genealogist can dig up on Catholic families in Maryland.

A couple that you can find on Ancestry:

Some on FamilySearch:

Delaware, Kent, Dover, Holy Cross Catholic Church records, 1869-1984

Western Maryland Catholics, 1819-1851

The “Ark” and the “Dove“: the beginning of civil and religious liberties in America

Princes of Ireland, planters of Maryland: a Carroll saga, 1500-1782

FamilySearch also has a great Wiki page on the subject here.

Questions? Comments?

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