America’s Oldest Jesuit Parish Turns 375

By Mike Gabriele

The year was 1634. Father Andrew White, SJ, arrived in the English Colonies at the Province of Maryland aboard a merchant ship, the Ark, along with fellow passengers Leonard Calvert and Thomas Greene, the first two governors of Maryland. They landed at St. Clements Island on the Potomac River, where Fr. White erected a large cross and celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the Colonies. Seeking to help establish a land that permitted freedom of religion, Fr. White settled among the local Indian tribes, learned their language and even baptized their chief. Not far up the river at Chapel Point, he established what is now St. Ignatius Church in 1641, the oldest Catholic parish in continuous use in the United States. His missionary work is commemorated in a stained glass window above the choir loft, depicting the baptism of the king and queen of the Piscataway tribe.

The saddle chalice, which could quickly be disguised as a bell, was used by mission priests from St. Ignatius.
2016 marked the 375th anniversary of St. Ignatius Chapel Point, celebrating all the trials and triumphs of this quaint parish nestled on some of the most beautiful waterfront countryside in Southern Mary- land. Jesuit pastors have had a presence at St. Ignatius dating back to Fr. Henry Warren, SJ, in 1662. The church’s current pastor and historian, Fr. Thomas Clifford, SJ, addressed this significance. “The reason we have had Jesuits residing and serving the congregation here since 1662 is that this was at times the headquarters of the Maryland Mission and at other times the parish center of Charles County,” he said. “It ties us to the larger Church and Society of Jesus.”

The church that stands today atop the picturesque hill overlooking the Potomac is not the original building. The original chapel that served colonists and Indians was closer to the water. The Manor House was built on the hill in 1741 and remains the oldest continuoususe Jesuit residence in the world.

In 1773, despite suppression of the Society of Jesus by Papal decree, which banned all Jesuit activities, several Jesuits continued to call Chapel Point their home, and in 1798, Fr. Charles Sewell, SJ, built the present church on the hill. It was blessed by John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore. Pope Pius VII fully restored the Society of Jesus in 1814. “St. Ignatius Chapel Point is one of the reasons the Society came back so quickly in Maryland,” explained Fr. Clifford. “In Catholic Europe, the suppression meant the loss of Jesuit churches, schools and houses. Here, we had always found ways to survive during periods of persecution, so we continued even as the Society ceased to exist.”

One of the windows at St. Ignatius depicts Fr. Andrew White, SJ, baptizing the Piscataway Indian king.
Immediately following the Civil War in 1866, a fire nearly destroyed the church and manor. Both were fully restored and rededicated less than two years later. For more than 150 years, many missionaries lived and worked at St. Ignatius Chapel Point. From this one church, priests set forth to Catholic homes and other new churches throughout the area, celebrating Mass and providing the sacraments. Most of the churches in Charles County were founded by priests originating at Chapel Point. They often carried with them the “saddle chalice” that remains at Chapel Point to this day. The chalice could quickly be taken apart and reconfigured to look like a bell if the early Jesuits were stopped by those trying to suppress their mission.

Today, people who visit St. Ignatius are moved as much by its deep history as its natural beauty and serene surroundings. It is a parish that was established more than 100 years before the birth of the United States. It is the place where the first Jesuits renewed their vows after the restoration of the Society. And it serves today as a strong community of faith, promoting Ignatian spirituality and social justice. St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point continues to build on its rich history every day.

375 years is just the beginning.

Since 1798, St. Ignatius Church has overlooked the Potomac River at Chapel Point. The original building, established by Fr. Andrew White, SJ, in 1641, was farther down the hill.

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