The road to religion

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 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. Mary's County Tourism Office, 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.

It was on St. Clement's Island that the settlers first made landfall in March 1634, and where the Jesuits on board celebrated the first English Mass in the New World. Today the island in the Potomac River is a state park, accessible during the summer months by water taxi departing from the museum.

The next two stops on the itinerary are churches. Christ Episcopal Church in Chaptico traces its origins to 1640. The parish was established in 1692; the land was donated by a grandfather of Francis Scott Key, and the church was completed in 1736.

The structure is said to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the creator of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. True or not, the red brick church is entirely more modest in scale and ambition. Still, it survived an attack by the British during the War of 1812 and remains one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the United States. We found it locked on the weekday afternoon of our visit.

Nearly as old is St. Ignatius, founded in 1662 as the first English Catholic parish in the Americas. The Rev. Andrew White, the Jesuit priest who served as a close adviser to the Calverts, arrived with the first settlers and set about converting the Potobac natives. It was White who named Chapel Point, a rise overlooking the confluence of the Port Tobacco and Potomac rivers.

The Jesuit residence St. Thomas Manor was built in 1741; the adjacent church was completed in 1798. Seven years later, three men took their vows in the sanctuary to become the first Jesuits in the young United States.

Today, the grounds provide a quiet refuge above the rivers and the surrounding farmlands. The simple stones that mark the graves of four centuries of priests bear witness to the mission of the church.

Religion is only part of the story at Port Tobacco, a few minutes' drive from St. Ignatius. A political and commercial hub in the 18th century, it became a hotbed of Civil War intrigue in the 19th, when Confederate sympathizers in this border state plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Today it is a near-ghost town, with just 15 residents as of the 2000 census. Its history is represented by the reconstructed courthouse, a one-room schoolhouse, a few houses owned privately and continuing archaeological digs.

The Quest for Religious Tolerance winds up, literally and figuratively, at the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, home of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A lawyer and farmer, Stone built the plantation he called Haberdeventure in the 1770s, as he was working in the Continental Congress to lay the groundwork for the legal guarantee of Calvert's liberty of conscience.

The success of that project is evident all along the Religious Freedom Byway, in the Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Amish communities that thrive in Southern Maryland today.