On the day Maryland celebrates it 381-year heritage, local church leaders and historical society members gathered at the Baltimore Basilica to bless wooden crosses carved from roots of a tree that stood nearly twice as long.
Pope Francis isn't scheduled to come to Maryland this fall as part of his first Papal Visit to the United States, but he has nonetheless become linked to the state's history.
Local church and historical society leaders made sure of that on Wednesday, when they commemorated the state's 381-year heritage at the Baltimore Basilica with three wooden crosses carved from a 600-year old tree, with plans to send one to Pope Francis.
Another of the crosses is to be sent to Prince Charles, as organizers of the "Maryland First in Freedom of Conscience" event recognized the two men for their efforts to defend religious freedom.
The Maryland Day event, sponsored by the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland, also commemorated the state's place as the first government entity in the Western Hemisphere to allow religious freedom.
It included reenactments of pivotal moments in Maryland's history and paid tribute to Cecil Calvert, the second Baron of Baltimore, who championed religious tolerance in the territory. It culminated with the blessing of the three hand-held, gold-leafed crosses made from roots of the so-called Liberty Tree in Annapolis.
The tree was one of several in original 13 colonies that were named such for serving as backdrops for events during the colonial period. Officials from the Society of Colonial Wars said it was about 600 years old when it suffered irreparable damage during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and was cut down.
The tree, which grew on the grounds of what is now St. John's College, was standing when a 1652 treaty was signed with the Susquehannock Native Americans, who in effect ceded the Eastern Shore and other territories. It was a meeting place in 1774 for the Sons of Liberty, colonial land owners who organized to protect their newfound rights against British interference.
Officials said that a third cross is bound for the tabernacle of the reconstructed Catholic church in St. Mary's City, the state's first brick church.
Taking part in Wednesday's ceremony were Daniel "Fire Hawk" Abbott, a Native American cultural historian from Cambridge, who said that the land's original inhabitants' connection to the land "spanned more than 20,000 years."
On the day the state commemorates its founding, Abbott asked that "we also recognize and remember a much older Maryland, before it was Maryland … the heritage of the indigenous people of the Chesapeake who allowed those first English colonists to settle on native land."
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori described the event as "an opportunity to bring together representatives of the whole community, the original native Marylanders, the religious community and its diversity and representatives from the African American community.
"It is a moment that reminds us how precious this God-given gift really is."
The crosses are set on wooden balls, and their bases were taken from the 460-year-old Wye oak, the state tree. Roots from the Liberty Tree were salvaged by Scott Watkins, Maryland Day chairman of the Society of Colonial Wars in Maryland. The organization is the state chapter of a D.C.-based group that studies America's colonial history.
Watkins, of Reisterstown, is a descendant of Col. Edward Dorsey, who owned the property on which the Liberty Tree stood. He said he secured roots of the tree from St. John's officials.
"The tree, to me, means so many different things," he said. "It's Maryland the colony to Maryland transitioning to Maryland the state."
Watkins said he gives the event a "modern application," linking it to contemporaries who have championed the same cause, in hopes of making Maryland's mark on the nation's religious freedoms better known.
He said he chose Pope Francis as one of the cross recipients "because he's a very refreshing leader on the scene, and he's stood up to a lot of tyranny, not just religious tyranny but other injustices.
"Prince Charles was chosen," he said, "because he's part of British history, because he has been a strong proponent of unity thorugh diversity in his own country and has spoken out against persecution of people of different religious backgrounds."
Watkins said that he is uncertain when Pope Francis will receive the cross.
"My intent is that it will be in his hand either before he arrives or while he is here," he said.