Faithful to Family


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.

"It's history that's very personal to you and your family," adds Miller, a curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. "It's the history of our country from an individual basis, but the individual happens to be related to you."

Nearby, Gerald Mattingly of Louisville, Ky., perused a typed family history discovered in someone's attic and has inserted it into an enormous loose-leaf notebook filled with records. Mattingly, who works for Bell South, became interested in his Maryland ancestors fairly recently. At his first reunion two years ago, "I didn't know who my great grandfather was at that point," he says. "I've made a lot of progress since then."

Weary of invasions

Mattingly, 52, took to driving to the Holy Land on weekends where he pored over church records, explored old cemeteries, examined census data. He can now tell you his entire Mattingly line and that his great, great, great grandfather came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1785, during the peak of the Catholic migration.

Beginning in the 1780s and continuing through 1815, an estimated one-third to one-fourth of Maryland's Catholics left for Kentucky, where it was believed they could provide more abundantly for their families.

Those who decided to leave were swept up in a westward-ho spirit, and had wearied of the risk of British invasions that had ravaged property and livestock during the Revolutionary War (and would do so again during the War of 1812).

What's more, Kentucky land was cheap, unlike in Maryland, where Catholic names often "appeared in the lists of "desperate debtors" in probate records, according to historian Thomas W. Spalding. Maryland land also became increasingly scarce as families multiplied. At the same time, the diminishing acreage was exhausted by relentless cultivation of tobacco and other crops.

Maryland was founded as a safe haven for Catholics, but scholars describe religious intolerance before and during the American Revolution. Although that motive in the "great migration" is downplayed today, departing Catholics also sought a home where they could worship without being stripped of their civil rights.

While as many Protestants as Catholics probably left Maryland for Kentucky, they often pulled up stakes upon discovering that much of the land they had settled was not as productive as presumed. Unlike their Protestant counterparts, Catholic settlers "could not brook the idea of straggling off in different directions, where, though they might better their earthly condition, they and their children would, in all probability, be deprived of the consolations of religion," Martin Spalding wrote in 1844.

In 1808, Bishop John Carroll petitioned Pope Pius VII to establish four new dioceses, including Bardstown, Ky. According to Spalding, by the time the new bishop, Benedict Flaget, arrived in Bardstown in 1811, "there were in Kentucky more than 1,000 families in some 30 congregations." Their presence ensured that the town would become the center of a Catholic community that remains remarkably intact today.

Some Catholic settlers did leave Kentucky for Missouri, Indiana and other outposts, but a critical mass remained in the Holy Land, says Tim Riordan, chief archaeologist at Historic St. Mary's City. "The thing that makes the Kentucky connection with St. Marys' so strong and so unique is that residents are conscious of coming from a particular area and settling near each other for reasons of establishing themselves in separate community, so they could have access to a priest," Riordan says.

History reveals "many, many settlements and colonization schemes from the East Coast moving inland," he adds. "You pick up a group of people and you're supposed to stay, yet within a few years, it kind of dissipates." But the Maryland Catholics had a "very good, strong community relationship and that held them together. It is very much like the Mormons, who were held together by common religion and the idea that they were different."

"It's a close-knit community," says Rev. Steve Pohl, parish pastor of St. Thomas Church in Bardstown. "We have our struggles and squabbles, but by and large, people just have a deep appreciation for their past."

Descendants of Maryland Protestants who went to Kentucky also attend the reunion. Many have intermarried with Catholic descendants. "We not only have our Catholic lines, but our Protestant lines," Thompson says.

Kentucky descendants of Maryland's founders have clung to numerous traditions associated with the state's southern counties. Some descendants such as Karen Fowler Caldwell stuff ham with cabbage, others with kale - just as in Southern Maryland. And in Kentucky, tobacco is grown and cured the Maryland way.

Colonial Marylanders also brought with them "a love of dancing," Thompson says. "Some of the priests were very down on that ... but their congregations went right ahead and that was their social life. They danced at corn huskings, quilting parties and barn raisings."

And then, there's the ultimate Chesapeake Bay bounty, the oyster. There was never a Thanksgiving or a Christmas, Thompson says, "that you didn't have a dish of scalloped oysters."

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