The citizens of Coltons Point, St. Mary’s County, the State of Maryland and the United States have a rare opportunity to correct an oversight of history and help celebrate one of the greatest events in the history of Christianity. After acknowledgement of the role of St. Clements Island in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and all of Christianity during the Mass with Pope Benedict XVI in our nation’s capitol the time has come to recognize the historic events.
St. Clements should have a Shrine built to honor the series of events and miracles that surrounded the 1634 landing and sainthood should be granted for the work of Father Andrew White, the first Jesuit priest in English speaking America, the first priest to conduct a Mass with the Eucharist, the first to consecrate America to the Holy Mother Mary and the Will of God and the first to bring a relic of the True Cross of Jesus to America, a relic that saved the son of the Native American Emperor and led to the conversion to Catholicism of the Emperor and his family along with many other Native Americans.
In 1930 North America got our first canonized martyrs, the North American Jesuit Martyrs who were murdered in Canada and New York around 1646. Father White’s historic achievements 12 years earlier made the martyrs achievement possible. While these Jesuits were being killed Father White had been captured and taken back to England where he was tried for conducting a public Mass in the colonies, a crime punishable by death. If anyone deserves to be the first saint from North America it was Father White.
In 1634 when the Ark and the Dove landed at St. Clements Island just off Coltons Point it was a far more historic moment than you might realize. Not only did the first Catholic settlers arrive in the colonies on the ships, so did the first Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White. Father White was responsible for the first charter in the world guaranteeing religious freedom. He carried a relic of the True Cross of Jesus with him when the boats miraculously survived storms at sea and Father White healed the dying son of a Native American Emperor with the relic.
Father Andrew White, who helped George Calvert put together the migration of Catholics to America, led a life worthy of a major motion picture. He grew up in England in a time when the Catholics were being driven out of the country. Shortly after secretly becoming a priest he was discovered and banished to Spain. After six years in Spain he heard his friend Calvert back in England was putting together a group to settle lands in America left to Calvert, lands Calvert intended to use to achieve religious tolerance in the colonies and for the first Catholic settlement in America.
White snuck back into England and helped Calvert gather the necessary people to make the treacherous journey and Calvert also agreed to set aside large tracts of his American land grant for the Catholic church and for the Jesuits in hopes they would use the land to become self-sufficient in the new World and survive.
Father White’s journals during the trip are the most significant description of settling the New World in existence. His account of the pilgrims' voyage and landing, Relatio Itineris in Marylandiam, recounts the colonists' heroic and miraculous sojourn to freedom. Among other details he told of two hurricane-type storms the ship encountered on the foreboding winter Atlantic seas. The passengers and crew said only a miracle saved them from drowning.
In his possession Father White carried with him a relic of the True Cross of Jesus, the very Cross that was used for the crucifixion. It had been given to Father White by English nobility to protect him on his journey. This was the first relic of such significance to reach America and few knew he even possessed it. Perhaps it had something to do with the miracles that saved the ships during the storms?
The web site The Cross and the Veil tells more of the story. American Catholics have a treasury of faith now all but forgotten and hidden away in the countryside of Southern Maryland. "Mary's Land" was the third English-speaking colony of America and the first colony founded by a charter guaranteeing freedom of religion. St. Clements Island, located in the Potomac River in St. Mary's County, Maryland, is the birthplace of both religious toleration and Catholicism in the English-speaking colonies of America. Father White celebrated the first Eucharist on that same day for the many Catholic pilgrims. Later Father White was to be the first to break the Native American Piscataway language barrier with a grammar and catechism.
In Father White’s own words he described the first landing at St. Clements Island: “On the day of the annunciation of the Holy Virgin Mary, on the 25th of March, in the year 1634, we offered in this island, for the first time, the sacrifice of the mass: in this region of the world it had never been celebrated before. Sacrifice being ended, having taken up on our shoulders the great cross which we had hewn from a tree, and going in procession to the place that had been designated, the Governor, com missioners, and other Catholics participating in the ceremony, we erected it as a trophy to Christ the Savior, while the litany of the holy cross was chanted humbly on the bended knees, with great emotion of soul.”
The events leading up to the voyage weave a rich historical tapestry. Since the English "Reformation", Catholics had suffered and died for their faith in England. George Calvert, a well-known Anglican statesman, saw the rights of Catholics ever more abased in England in the early 1630's and chose that time to publicly announce his conversion to Catholicism and intention to found a colony based on religious toleration. It was Father Andrew White who wrote a widely published defense of the founding of a colony based on a charter guaranteeing religious freedom. It was this charter that was later to become the blueprint for the Maryland Bill of Rights and also an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The fledgling colony of Maryland with its General Assembly composed of both Protestants and Catholics was soon under attack by Puritans who ruled but a few brief years. The colony was restored shortly thereafter only to fall yet again in the mid-1640's under the tyrannical rule of the Church-State of England. Father White was captured and returned to England in chains 11 years after his arrival to await trial for openly celebrating Mass, a crime punishable by death in England. A good attorney convinced the court of his innocence and Father White was banished to Belgium.
Returning to England as an old man, Father White spent three years in prison and later lived in a private home where he prophesied the date of his death far in advance to be the Feast of St. John The Evangelist. Sitting down in a chair at sunset on that very day, he closed his eyes and died. This brilliant academician, political theorist, activist, and missionary had inconspicuously taken up the cross past middle age to help found a colony devoted to the ideal of the separation of church and state and the idea of religious toleration. In his account of the journey, Father White relates that he consecrated the land to Mary and to the will of God.
For over 80 years, from the late 1600's until shortly after the Declaration of Independence, Maryland Catholics were cruelly persecuted under the rule of the Church-State of England. The laws rightfully established by the diverse members of the Maryland General Assembly were repealed and the colony was divided into parishes ruled by rectors appointed by the governor. Catholics were heavily taxed, prohibited from holding office or sending their children to school. Protestant widows who married Catholics had their children legally taken from them. Priests disguised themselves as traveling salesmen whose ringing bells could be disassembled to become what were called "saddle chalices" for the celebration of the Eucharist in house chapels.
During this time of persecution, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was spread via a French prayer book for men. The devotion spread like fire through the colony. At the same time, the Great Awakening was taking place in Protestant assemblies who also suffered under the rule of the Church of England. Even under terrible restraints, conversions to Catholicism were many. One historian postulates that it was the solidarity between the various denominations as well as their righteous anger that was the true catalyst for the American Revolution. It was the knowledge of their persecution that caused French Canada to join America in its fight for liberty. Without French Canada's help, American independence would have been but a dream.
Now, as the world faces ever-increasing religious intolerance and bigotry toward people of faith, Catholics can return to the roots of their own faith to learn about the sanctity of religious freedom, the heroic sacrifices of our ancestors and the preciousness of our Catholic faith and culture. Modern day democracy was first given birth at the foot of a cross, planted on a tiny island in Southern Maryland on the little celebrated feast of the conception of the Child, Jesus.
It is about time that the Church and the nation that benefited from the events 374 years ago recognize the historic occasion and the pioneering Jesuit who made it possible.