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Religious Freedom Byway Would Recognize Maryland's Historic Role

Historic St. Mary's City is an immaculately restored 17th-century village where the colony of Maryland was formed by Leonard Calvert and other settlers in 1634.
Historic St. Mary's City is an immaculately restored 17th-century village where the colony of Maryland was formed by Leonard Calvert and other settlers in 1634. (By Ryan Anson For The Washington Post)

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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ask most Marylanders where the notion of freedom of religion originated and they'll probably say New England, Susan Wilkinson said.

But the answer is Maryland. So Wilkinson and others are working to make sure residents have a better understanding of the history of religious freedom. Their goal is federal recognition for the Religious Freedom Byway, which will wind through 139 miles of St. Mary's and Charles counties.

"From a history point of view, the story of the struggle for a separation of church and state and liberty of conscience isn't very well known," said Wilkinson, spokeswoman for Historic St. Mary's City, the site of Maryland's first capital. "To have that story recognized on a federal level will really help get the word out."

Recently, the Charles County Planning Commission recommended that county commissioners approve the Religious Freedom Byway Management Plan, a 99-page document seeking recognition of the route as a federal byway. The plan calls for the publication of a guidebook and interpretive materials to escort visitors through 22 sites.

If Charles and St. Mary's county commissioners adopt the plan, it will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration's Scenic Byway Program for approval.

The religious freedom route would become the fourth nationally designated byway in Maryland, joining the Catoctin Mountain Scenic Byway, the Chesapeake Country Scenic Byway and the Historic National Road. The plan was funded largely by a $150,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration in 2006.

Officials from the two counties and private groups led representatives from the Maryland State Highway Administration on a tour of the byway recently, beginning at St. Mary's City and traveling north to the Thomas Stone National Historic Site. Along the way, they stopped at some of the most important religious sites from the country's earliest days.

Historic St. Mary's City, an immaculately restored 17th-century village where the colony of Maryland was formed by Leonard Calvert and other settlers in 1634, is arguably the most historically valuable site on the byway. The seeds for the colony's religious life were planted when the Anglican King James I gave the charter for the colony to the Catholic Calvert family, a rare move in a time of infighting between the two religions.

"If your conscience suggested one faith and the state favored another faith, you were pretty much persona non grata, but that began to change," Wilkinson said.

The first few miles of the byway will also include a stop at St. Clement's Island, where the earliest settlers first landed on the Ark and the Dove, and Sotterley Plantation, the state's oldest plantation, which is open to the public.

After crossing into Charles County, visitors will encounter the home of Thomas Stone, where he signed the Declaration of Independence, and St. Ignatius Church, the oldest continually operating Catholic church in Maryland.

Edward P. O'Connell, a priest at St. Thomas Manor at St. Ignatius, said a national designation would increase people's awareness of the church, which houses relics from the Ark and Dove and a stained glass window showing an Algonquin Indian killing his brother to become chief. Earlier this year, church members made a DVD about the church's history to play for visitors.

"When I came from the Bronx more than 25 years ago, I had already heard of Southern Maryland's history," O'Connell said. "Once you get into this history, you're kind of caught. So I've been trying for many years to get kids interested in their own history."

O'Connell, Wilkinson and others said the increased publicity that comes with a federal byway designation could boost tourism in Southern Maryland, which is often hurt by being out-of-the-way.

"If someone goes to these sites, there will be someone to meet and greet them, provide information on the site and have everything that a visitor would need," said Beth Clark, a Charles planner. "It really presents expanded tourism opportunities for both counties."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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