America’s Catholic Colony


The history of Colonial England in America is one of great irony: The same Protestant groups who fled England in pursuit of toleration and religious liberty brought with them an utter hatred for the Church. They installed laws and customs that excluded Catholics from all aspects of public life for over a century and a half.

This reality makes the story of Catholics in the first days of Maryland all the more remarkable. From its founding, Maryland was intended to be a place where Catholics were welcomed and permitted to share in the dream of a new life which brought so many others to America. What happened to the Catholics who pursued that dream is a reminder that the freedoms we take for granted today were hard-won by those who came before us.

A Haven for Catholics

As children used to learn in American schools, the first permanent English settlement was made in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. Other colonies soon followed along the Atlantic seaboard. In 1620, a group of Pilgrims—ardent Puritans who rejected what they considered Roman influences in the Church of England—left England to escape religious conformity. They sailed from England on the famed Mayflower, arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and set about to forge a place for themselves. These two groups, in Virginia and Massachusetts, proved the vanguard of what became the 13 colonies.

The religious toleration that was a hallmark of most of the colonies did not extend to Catholics. Most of the inhabitants of the colonies had grown up in a world filled with animosity for the Church of Rome and were conditioned to fear and despise the Catholic Church by Elizabethan propaganda and England’s struggle against the Catholic powers of Europe. Not surprisingly, then, anti-Catholic laws, disabilities, and hatred permeated almost all of the English colonies. One remarkable exception was Maryland.

Maryland is rightly honored as the one place in the colonies where Catholics could live in comparative religious freedom in America. But even there the freedoms enjoyed by Catholics proved fleeting.

Credit for the Catholic colony belongs to one man: George Calvert, First Lord Baltimore. A talented English business leader and a friend to Kings James I and Charles I, Calvert in 1624 converted to Catholicism. The decision cost him his seat in Parliament and his state office, but he resigned them willingly because he believed so firmly in the truths of the Church. His winning personality also helped him retain favor at the royal court. This proved crucial, as Calvert soon felt the harsh penal laws against Catholics and he committed himself to aiding his fellow believers. One of those ways was through a colony in the New World.

While historians are of differing opinions as to whether Calvert was concerned first and foremost with a commercial enterprise or with a sanctuary for Catholics, the idea of a colony for Catholics soon took shape. The first chosen site was in Newfoundland, but this proved financially impractical (and the winter utterly intolerable). Ironically, too, the fledgling colony was attacked by the nearby Catholic French. Virginia was the next possibility, but the furious resistance of the Protestants blocked the scheme. Undaunted, Calvert petitioned for a charter to start a colony north of Virginia, but he died in April 1632. A few months later, on June 20, 1632, a charter for the Maryland Colony was granted to his son, Caecilius (or Cecil) Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore. The colony was named in honor of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria.

On March 25, 1634, two small ships, the Ark and the Dove, landed at St. Clement’s Island in southern Maryland. On board were the colony’s first settlers, led by Leonard Calvert, Cecil Calvert’s younger brother. The group consisted of 17 gentlemen, their wives, and their households. Most of the servants were Protestants. The first Catholic Mass in the colonies was said by Jesuit Fr. Andrew White; other Jesuits in the group included Fr. John Altham and Br. Thomas Gervase.

Freedom of Religion

But Maryland was not exclusively for Catholics. Calvert was a realist, and he knew that the long-term chances of the colony were better if it observed genuine religious liberty. Calvert was also not stupid. He was aware that from the start the Catholics—even in a Catholic colony—would be outnumbered by Protestants. This meant that that toleration of Catholics would always be precarious, even in a colony founded by them. Prior to their departure to America, then, the first colonists for Maryland were cautioned by Lord Cecil about how they should behave. He declared:

His lord requires his said governor and commissioners that in their voyage to Mary Land they be very careful to preserve unity and peace amongst all the passengers on ship-board, and that they suffer no scandal nor offense to be given to any of the Protestants . . . and that for that end, they cause all acts of Roman Catholic religion to be done as privately as may be, and that they instruct all the Roman Catholics to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of religion and that the said governor and commissioners treat the Protestants with as much mildness as justice will permit.

To help insure religious peace, the decree of Calvert was used as the basic modus vivendi in the early years. In effect, before Roger Williams had even fled the intolerant atmosphere of Massachusetts and set up Rhode Island as a haven from the Puritans, Calvert had established Maryland as a place where people of all faiths were welcome.

After five years, a more formal document proved desirable, so in 1639, the Maryland Assembly decreed that "Holy churches within this province shall have all their rights and liberties." The decree was a timely one: In England the political and religious situation was fast deteriorating. Relations between King Charles I and Parliament, always strained, erupted in 1642 in bloody civil war. The grim conflict raged until 1649 when the king was deposed and beheaded, after which the rabid anti-Catholic Oliver Cromwell emerged as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death in 1658.

The colonies in America were themselves convulsed by the upheaval in England, and Calvert’s support of King Charles put Maryland at risk of attack by its Protestant neighbors. The assault came in 1645, led by a Protestant trader and tobacco dealer named Richard Ingle. After his dealings with the Catholic leaders of Maryland soured, he fled the colony and secured support from nearby Protestants and returned with a small anti-Catholic army and the less-than-subtly-named ship Reformation. Ingle attacked St. Mary’s City in 1645 and caused nearly two years of utter chaos. Jesuit priests were seized and sent in chains to England, and Catholic property was plundered and burned. Hated by Catholic and Protestant Marylanders alike, Ingle was given the title of "that ungrateful Villagine." Most Marylanders considered him nothing less than a pirate. At last, Calvert returned with an army in 1646 and restored some semblance of order.

A Diminishing Toleration

To ease the religious situation and encourage settlers to invest in rebuilding the devastated colony, in 1649 the Maryland Assembly passed the "Acts Concerning Religion," generally called the Act of Toleration. Its goal was to prevent religious strife from destroying Maryland. Its terms were fairly simple but still striking. It prohibited the molestation of anyone who professed belief in Jesus Christ and it guaranteed freedom to worship. Written in plain legal language, the decree nevertheless anticipated the principles of religious toleration that became the bedrock of the United States’ approach to religion.

Sadly, the situation in England and the colonies only grew worse in the years after the beheading of King Charles I. The Commonwealth of England that existed from 1649 to 1660 was marked by a return to severe anti-Catholicism, and the same spirit was encouraged in the colonies. In 1654, Protestants overthrew the proprietary government of Maryland. The new regime outlawed the Catholic faith and repealed the Act of Toleration of 1649. Only in 1658 was the Calvert family able to regain control and re-institute the Toleration Act. During the Restoration period and the reign of King Charles II (1661-1685), the Calverts remained in fragile control of the colony. With the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-1689 and the overthrow of the Catholic King James II, however, the Calverts’ days were numbered. Within two years, Maryland had been seized and declared a royal colony. In 1692 Anglicanism was decreed the official religion of state.

In 1704, the Assembly passed "An Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery within this Province" targeting the Jesuits in Maryland. It forbade any "Popish Bishop, Priest, or Jesuite" from proselytizing, baptizing any person other than those with "Popish Parents," or saying Mass. By another statute in 1704, Mass could be said only in private homes. Additional laws prohibited Catholics from practicing law and from teaching children. Severe taxes were imposed on hiring Irish "Papist" servants as a move to discourage Irish immigration. In 1718, Catholics were stripped of their right to vote as all voters were required to take various test oaths that included deliberately anti-Catholic declarations.

Cradle of Faith

The great Maryland experiment was at an end, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that Catholics were permitted to practice their faith openly. Still, the courage of the Maryland Catholics had planted the faith permanently in English America. In 1708, there were 2,974 Catholics in Maryland out of a total population of 40,000. By 1785, there were 15,800 Catholics, making them the largest group of Catholics anywhere in the colonies. Out of this cradle of faith emerged some of the most important and revered figures in American Catholic history, including John Carroll, the Father of the American Church and the first bishop and archbishop of Baltimore. But Catholic Maryland also pointed the way to America’s future and the legacy of religious tolerance and pluralism. John Tracy Ellis, the famed historian of American Catholicism, wrote:

For the first time in history there was a real prospect for a duly constituted government under which all Christians would possess equal rights, where all churches would be tolerated, and where none would be the agent of the government . . . to the "land of sanctuary" came Puritans fleeing persecution in Virginia and Anglicans escaping from the same threat in Massachusetts. This policy of religious tolerance has rightly been characterized as "the imperishable glory of Lord Baltimore and of the State." (American Catholicism, 24)


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 7.