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St. Mary's City, Maryland: The Birthplace of Religious Freedom

From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland

Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland

The Birthplace of Religious Freedom

St. Mary's City in Southern Maryland was the first city in the U.S. government to institute religious freedom, the first city where an African American participated in the legislature, and the first place a woman petitioned for the right to vote. Saint Mary's is imbued with a spirit of freedom and high ideals and is set in a beautiful, natural place on St. Mary's River in Maryland.

St. Mary's County is on Maryland's lower Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay near the confluence of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. It is quiet and peaceful, rich and fertile, with natural harbors and abundant seafood. It's easy to see why British immigrants settled here in 1634.

St. Mary's City is located within a two-hour drive of Washington D.C. and/or Baltimore on southern Maryland's western shore on Route 5. The St. Mary's River flows into the Potomac River just north of the confluence of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Everyone learns the stories of John Smith and the settlers in and around Jamestown, Virginia. You hear about William Penn and Roger Williams in Pennsylvania. You hear very little about the contributions of the Calvert family in Maryland, however, and the daring social experiment where they established the 4th English colony in North America and the first colony to guarantee religious freedom.

George Calvert's Radical Idea

In the 1620s, George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, set his sights on colonial development in the New World. Along with his family, a mixed group of Protestants and Catholics attempted to settle in Newfoundland. The harsh winter, an English war with the French, and religious discord, however, halted the experiment. The colony failed.

George Calvert hoped to locate a milder climate in the Chesapeake Bay region but died before making the actual attempt. His sons, Cecil and Leonard Calvert, gathered enough colonists by offering the opportunity to worship God, each according to his own conscience. The new colony would offer religious freedom with the then forward-thinking idea that religious harmony would offer better opportunities for peaceful living and commerce.

The Ark and the Dove

On November 22, 1633, the Ark and the Dove set sail from the Isle of Wright in England with 140 passengers. After first encountering heavy seas and storms, the ships found smooth sailing and arrived at St. Clement's Island on the St. Mary's River on March 25, 1634.

The land was granted to Cecil Calvert by King Charles I. But Cecil stayed in England to defend the land grant. The colonists were led by Cecil's brother, Leonard Calvert, who became Maryland's first governor. Originally named Terra Maria after the king's wife, St. Mary's was the first place in the English-speaking colonies where Roman Catholic Mass was celebrated.

The Calverts purchased some 30 miles of land from the king of the Yaocomico tribe in exchange for metal goods, hatchets, axes, hoes, and cloth. Today, we decry the seemingly ridiculously unfair trade. Yet, imagine how wonderful metal tools seemed to a stone-age culture. The Yaocomico had migrated to the area to avoid war with another tribe and welcomed new allies against their enemy.

Leonard Calvert, Lord Baltimore, 1st  Governor of Maryland

Leonard Calvert, Lord Baltimore, 1st Governor of Maryland

Indigenous Americans in Maryland—The Yaocomico

The indigenous Americans of the area lived in longhouses. Poles were arched and a framework was built in a long, narrow design covered with bark or woven matting. Doors opened at either end with a woven mat closure. Support poles served as storage for hanging belongings.

Sleeping platforms that doubled as benches for seating lined the longhouse. Another tier of shelving above the benches was used as storage. Some longhouses had floors covered with woven matting.

The Yaocomico raised crops including corn, beans, and squash, which could be grown together in the same field as the corn plants used to support the beans. The tribe hunted deer, turkey, heron, and beaver, with deer being the primary target due to its many uses. Deer provided clothing, meat, and bone tools. The St. Mary's River provided excellent fishing and shellfish were plentiful.

Church Point at St. Mary's on the St. Mary's River (painting by Dolores Monet)

Church Point at St. Mary's on the St. Mary's River (painting by Dolores Monet)

Freedom of Religion

In 1644, the colonists set down laws including freedom of religion, the first English-speaking colony in America to do so—the government would not dictate the manner in which people addressed their creator. After years of persecution in England that often switched at the whim of the current monarch, the colonists established a separation of church and state.

St. Mary's City was the first British colony to allow a Catholic church to be built. Mathias de Sousa, who had been an indentured servant, was the first African American to participate in American legislature.

Margaret Brent was the first woman in British North America to petition the government for the right to vote. In 1676, a statehouse was built but freedom of religion was short-lived. The Maryland colonists invited Puritans to escape persecution in England. Protestants and Catholics attempted to live in harmony until

In 1676, a statehouse was built but freedom of religion was short-lived. The Maryland colonists invited Puritans to escape persecution in England. Protestants and Catholics attempted to live in harmony until 1654 when Anglicans took control of the government.

In 1692, England sent a new governor who made the Church of England the official religion. Catholics were forbidden to participate in government. Mass was outlawed and children were encouraged to rebel against their Catholic parents. Special taxes were levied against Catholics and in 1704, Catholic churches and schools were closed.

When Maryland Governor John Seymour enacted the Act Against Popery, the Catholic church at St. Mary's City was intentionally burned down.

The Capitol of Maryland was moved to Annapolis, a Protestant stronghold.

Reconstructed Catholic Church, St. Mary's, Maryland

Reconstructed Catholic Church, St. Mary's, Maryland

Archeological Interest in St. Mary's County, Maryland

At the time of religious persecution against them, the Catholics gradually moved away from the area. The importance of St. Mary's dwindled and there was little development. St. Mary's was a tobacco-producing, agrarian area.

In 1848, a novel called Rob of the Bowl, by John Pendleton Kennedy, set in historic St. Mary's City, sparked interest in St. Mary's and highlighted the colonial experiment that featured George Calvert's radical ideals. In 1840, Maryland legislators created St. Mary's Female Seminary, a boarding school for girls as a living monument to the state's intellectual and philosophical origins.

In the 1930s, archaeologists took an interest in the relatively undisturbed area of St. Mary's City, and in 1934, the original statehouse was reconstructed.

20th Century archaeological excavations have turned up 5 million artifacts including prehistoric items and 17th-century items including Facon de Venise glassware and a set of Kataya Turkish ceramics.

In 1983, archaeologists began to excavate the Catholic church and in 1990, three rare lead coffins were discovered by Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institute. A forensic anthropologist and team identified the remains of one-time Maryland Governor Philip Calvert (George's youngest son), his wife, Anne, and an unidentified small child.

The Catholic church has been reconstructed based on archeological finds including roof tiles, bricks, window fragments, and plaster fragments. The chapel will display the lead coffins viewed through a glass floor in their original positions as well as a portion of the original foundation.

Historic Reenactment at St. Mary's City

St. Mary's Today

St. Mary's City is now a living history museum featuring a reconstructed tavern, farmhouse, and tobacco plantation as well as a replica of a longhouse. Actors in period costume guide tourists and school children through what seems to be a time warp. One can easily imagine life in the 1600s while studying 17th-century agricultural technology explained in Elizabethan English.

On one visit, Goodwife Spray showed me how to use herbs popular at the time and explained the old-time fear of bad night airs, suspected of causing the ague. Known today as malaria, ague was spread by malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which, of course, emerge at twilight.

Areas where archeological excavation located foundations hold replicated frames for the 17th-century homes so long neglected by history.

Sailboat at St. Mary's College

Sailboat at St. Mary's College

St. Mary's College of Maryland

Across Rt 5 from historic St. Mary's City is St. Mary's College of Maryland, America's top public honors college. U.S. News and World Reports rates St. Mary's College of Maryland the 84th (of 265) best liberal arts college, most of which are private colleges.

In 1927, St. Mary's Seminary became Maryland's first junior college. in 1964, it evolved to become a four-year liberal arts college.

The relatively isolated 319-acre campus offers students the opportunity to engage in archaeological excavation and historical study. Many outdoor activities feature sailing and kayaking with boats available at the boathouse on the St. Mary's River.

Without the commercial distractions of a larger and more urban college, St. Mary's students actively engage with nature and history. The spectacular setting offers magnificent river views, and the serenity of Church Point, a sandy stretch shaded by old cypress trees, the perfect spot for quiet contemplation and outdoor get-togethers that breeds a love for St. Mary's—the true birthplace of the ideal of American freedom and democracy.

Church Point at St. Mary's County, Maryland

Church Point at St. Mary's

Church Point at St. Mary's

© 2009 Dolores Monet