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Escapes: Touring the Religious Freedom Byway in Southern Maryland

Dating to 1641, St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point is the oldest continually active Catholic parish in the country.
Dating to 1641, St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point is the oldest continually active Catholic parish in the country. (Zofia Smardz - The Washington Post)

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By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You mean Maryland wasn't named after the Virgin Mary?

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I've just been disabused of this fond notion, a product of my obviously fuzzy awareness of the state's history as the first English-speaking Catholic colony in the Americas, at the St. Clement's Island Museum. A wall installation titled "Terra Maria" has set me straight: The Mary wasn't involved. The name, it seems, was the doing of King Charles I, who granted a New World land charter to George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, with the request that, pretty please, the new colony be named after his beloved queen.

Except, the king's wife was named Henrietta Maria. So shouldn't Maryland really be . . . Henriettaland?

My husband ignores my feeble pass at a joke. He's examining a life-size mannequin representing Father Andrew White, a Jesuit priest who was with the colonists when they landed at St. Clement's Island -- "the birthplace of Maryland" -- on March 25, 1634, and the single source of everything we know about that landing and the colony's early years. (Thank goodness he kept a diary and wrote stuff down, because apparently nobody else did.) The mannequin is highly cheesy-looking, but we're both intrigued to learn the story of Father White, the "Apostle of Maryland."

Good thing, because we bump into the good priest all along our tour of Maryland's Religious Freedom Byway, a sinuous route through the tidewater regions of Charles and St. Mary's counties that was recently elevated to the status of National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transportation. An honor well deserved, because scenic it is.

On the first clear day after a long stretch of rain, we've driven down from Washington along roads that pass through forests still dappled in late-fall foliage, opening occasionally onto stubble-covered fields crowned by weather-beaten barns. Here and there, pools left by the recent torrents reflect the orange trees and the feathery clouds in the azure sky above.

You forget how your breath can expand in land like this, how free you can feel. A fitting place to establish a new kind of society, where people would worship as they pleased and accept those who worshiped otherwise. What a concept, huh? But 375 years ago, it was thoroughly radical.

Newly enlightened about Maryland's origins, we head to St. Mary's City, the colony's first capital, the fourth-oldest settlement in America, and now a ghost town. Well, not like in the West. But it's full of ghosts -- the "ghost frames" of buildings that once stood on this spot on the eastern shore of the St. Mary's River, a Potomac tributary. Having flourished for nearly 70 years, the town eventually disappeared after a Cromwellian-style revolt against the governing Calverts and the ultimate outlawing of Catholicism in Maryland in 1704. Yes, that was the sad end to the first Marylanders' noble vision, at least until religious freedom was enshrined in the Constitution. The Calverts were just way ahead of the curve, is all.

Today, Historic St. Mary's City is a living history museum and an archaeological site, with a number of restored buildings -- and the yet-to-be-restored ghost frames -- that lend it a semi-Williamsburgian feel. Not that you should bring up that other restored city to the south. "No, we are not" Maryland's version of Williamsburg, says one costumed docent dolefully when I foolishly do so. "We don't have a Rockefeller giving us thousands to rebuild all our buildings."

Too true, alas. But there are enough to wander among, and we do, following a young woman who's taking her niece's Flat Stanley -- er, Flat Sarah -- doll around on a tour. (At the State House, she props the paper figurine up in the pillory and snaps a photo. Cute!) We hit the print shop, the first in the Southern colonies; Garrett Van Sweringen's inn, with its luxe private room for elite travelers (nothing changes, folks); and the recently reconstructed Jesuit chapel, the first Catholic church in English America. Father White's doing, of course.

The next day, we run across White again, but first we have a look around Christ Episcopal Church in Chaptico -- it's not all about Catholicism, after all. In fact, despite their founding role, Catholics have mostly been a minority in Maryland. The church is a Georgian gem, a picture-perfect colonial-era house of worship built, according to an informational marker, in 1736 using taxes collected from all the colony's citizens, Anglican or not. They didn't know yet from church-state separation.

A young man is hanging around, checking various instruments planted in the graveyard and inside the church. The Navy is doing some firing in the Chesapeake Bay, he says (so that explains those thundering booms we heard from our B&B in the morning), and he was taking measurements to see whether the noise was causing any damage. Good thing! I'd hate to see that pretty white spire topple over.

Of course, there's an equally pretty white spire at our next stop. Founded in 1641 by -- you got it -- Father White, St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point is the oldest continually active Catholic parish in the United States. But the 1798 building itself, inside and out, could be a copy of the Chaptico church. It makes you wonder what all that Protestant vs. Catholic fuss was about.

It's another gorgeous day, and we shuffle around the grounds through piles of fallen leaves, reading the cemetery markers. A massive stone lists the names of all the Jesuits who labored in the Maryland mission, establishing churches, converting the natives (peacefully!), carrying on Father White's work. I'm sure he'd have thought it work well done.

The cemetery grounds roll steeply down toward the Port Tobacco River, whose waters shimmer silver-blue in the late-fall sun. Standing on the crest, we gaze at the panorama of color and listen to the breezes whispering in the trees. I breathe in, and everything around me seems to expand.


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