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U.S. roots go back 361 years


An article Saturday about the history of the Baltimore Archdiocese incorrectly referred to Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons as Irish-born. Cardinal Gibbons was born to Irish immigrants in Baltimore in 1834, but they went back to Ireland when James was 3. He and his mother returned to America in 1853.

The Sun regrets the error.

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.

They avoided close ties to the pope -- a foreign political power whose influence might arouse Protestant suspicions. "The Catholic clergy and laity here know that the only connection that they ought to have with Rome is to acknowledge the pope as the spiritual head of the church," wrote the prominent and respected Jesuit priest John Carroll.

Pope Pius VI was persuaded not to name a bishop to the infant United States. Instead, in 1784, he named John Carroll "superior" of the mission to the United States. That mission totaled just 37,800 Catholics, fewer than are expected tomorrow at Oriole Park. Nearly half -- 15,800 -- lived in Maryland, served by just 19 priests.

John Carroll, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other national leaders, believed in minimizing differences between Catholics and others. He even briefly opposed the Latin Mass which, he believed, set Catholics apart and obstructed unity among all Christians.

Carroll's ecumenism led him to join Methodists, Quakers and others in opposing a 1784 proposal in the General Assembly for a tax to support clergy of all faiths. They feared it would establish the dominant Anglican, or Episcopal, Church as an official religion.

"We have smarted before under the lash of an established church and shall therefore be on our guard against every approach to it," he said. The bill failed.

In 1789, when Carroll found that he needed more authority, he agreed to the establishment of the first U.S. diocese. To no one's surprise, he became the diocese's first bishop. But he was not appointed from Rome, as later bishops would be. In harmony with the new democracy, he was elected by Catholic clergymen.

His see included all of the United States and territories west to the Mississippi. He chose Baltimore as its seat because he lived there and because it was the largest town in the state with the most Catholics.

The diocese's first cathedral -- and the nation's -- was St. Peter's at Saratoga and Sharp streets (now the site of a parking garage). It would be replaced in 1821 by the Romanesque Cathedral of the Assumption, two blocks away.

Even as the tide of immigration rose, and Catholic populations of other cities grew far larger, John Carroll's choice would make Baltimore the continuing focus of power in American Catholicism. When new dioceses were formed in 1808 in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown, Ky., they fell within the Province of Baltimore.

It was not until the 184Os that dioceses were established outside the oversight of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

Nation's firsts

Within John Carroll's tradition of innovation, the church thrived. In 1791, the new bishop authorized four French Sulpician priests to open the nation's first seminary -- St. Mary's -- in a tavern on what is now Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue.

Flemish Carmelite nuns a year earlier had established a convent -- another first -- at Port Tobacco in Charles County. The first religious school for girls opened in Georgetown in 1799, taught by an order of French nuns.

On Paca Street in Baltimore in 1808, a widow named Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton opened another Catholic girls school. She and her teachers moved the school to Emmitsburg a year later and established themselves as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, dedicated to aid the poor and nurse the sick. Her work would earn her sainthood in 1975.

In 1829, a French priest and three women -- including Mary Elizabeth Lange, now being considered for sainthood -- received permission to form a new sisterhood, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Composed at first of French-speaking mulatto Haitian refugees, it was the first to teach and serve the city's black Catholic community.

Rise of immigration

By the 1830s and 1840s, the character of the Maryland church was changing as a new kind of Catholic arrived with the growing waves of immigration.

In 1847, sick, orphaned and destitute refugees from Ireland's potato blight were being put ashore from famine ships. At Fells Point, they entered a city already aroused by fears of crime, disease and job competition. Haters called their faith "popery."

Even some of Maryland's native-born Catholics were made uneasy by the tide of poor Irish and Germans. Some complained that these "counterfeits of humanity" -- who stood in the cathedral because they had no money for pew rent -- were a burden to the church, according to Brother Spalding.

As anti-Catholic riots flared in other cities, the Baltimore Archdiocese built ornate new churches for these new congregations. In them, the Irish and Germans, and later Poles, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks and Lithuanians would preserve their languages and customs, and nurture their religious practices.

Parochial schools sheltered Catholic children from the influences public or Protestant schools. Catholic hospitals, orphanages, and community savings associations addressed social and economic needs. A Catholic press, some in the immigrants' languages, kept the community in formed, instructed and in step.

No challenge to slavery

As the Civil War approached, a national council of bishops held in Baltimore did not challenge slavery. Many Maryland Catholics owned slaves. Many, including leading Catholic publications, saw abolitionists as subversives, Brother Spalding writes. They sympathized with the South, and some among Maryland's old-line Catholic elite would fight for the Confederacy.

Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick tried to take a middle line, advising his religious orders to "be cautious not to take sides in the politics which divide the country, but pray for peace and respect the constituted authorities."

But toward the war's end, Archbishop Martin John Spalding made a high priority of assisting the 4 million freed slaves. There had long been basement chapels for free blacks in Baltimore, but Spalding saw the former slaves as "a golden opportunity for reaping a harvest of souls. I want all my children -- Irish, German, American, African -- to go to heaven."

The nation's first parish designated exclusively for the use of black Catholics was St. Francis Xavier, dedicated at Calvert and Pleasant streets in 1864.

Immigration resumed after the war, but the newcomers were no less unwelcome. "In the minds of most Marylanders, the growth of violence, pauperism, crime and disease was associated with the rise of immigration," Brother Spalding writes.

Unlike English Catholics, these immigrants could not blend into the American scene. They looked different, and most spoke no English. They settled in ethnic neighborhoods, where the Catholicism was more demonstrative -- and the churches more elaborate -- than those of English-Americans.

"Everything turned in toward the parish. The parish priest was almost like a little mayor," said the Rev. Joseph Rossi, a professor of church history and theology at Loyola College of Maryland.

After becoming Baltimore's archbishop in 1877, Irish-born Cardinal James Gibbons became the best-known and most-respected churchman of his day. A fervent patriot and eloquent speaker, he was a friend to presidents and often spoke out on foreign affairs.

He argued for a more thoroughly American church and assimilation of the ethnic Catholic enclaves. He urged Catholics to "cultivate a spirit of industry" that would carry them into the middle class. His message did not noticeably change his flock.

Loss of Southern Maryland roots

After Gibbons' death in 1921, archbishops and cardinals in far larger Catholic communities such as New York and Chicago took over the national leadership roles. In 1947, the Archdiocese of Baltimore lost its Southern Maryland roots when the District of Columbia, its suburbs and Southern Maryland were split off. Today, the Baltimore Archdiocese includes only north-central and Western Maryland.

The archdiocese would remain a conservative force in Catholics' lives well into the 20th century, warning them away from communism, fascism, anti-Semitism and -- until Pearl Harbor -- involvement in World War II.

But after the war, things began to turn in a direction Carroll and Gibbons would have approved.

"Catholics had fought on equal terms with others in America, and they were successfully moving into the white-collar classes," Father Rossi said. "They begin to be seen, and to see themselves, not merely as Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans; they see themselves as Americans."

During the 1950s and 1960s, they began to move out of their old ethnic enclaves. Middle-class suburban parishes and parochial schools mushroomed, while many urban churches and schools grew poorer and emptier.

Prompted by directives from the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were encouraged to look beyond themselves and take on the causes of racial and social justice. In 1963, the future Cardinal Lawrence Shehan banned racial discrimination in Catholic schools, churches, hospitals and social organizations. He reached out to leaders of other faiths and allowed experimentation with more English, music and lay participation in the liturgy.

Today, said Father Rossi, "American Catholics look at issues differently than do many Catholics in other parts of the world." On many issues, including abortion and birth control, "they would certainly consider the teachings of the church, but they also look to other sources before they make their decisions. They wouldn't necessarily feel that they have to go along with the church on everything."

In these things, he said, "I would say the Americanist tradition . . . the Carroll tradition, has won out."

Key figures in archidocese


Key figures in the history of the Baltimore Archdiocese

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