St. Francis Xavier Parish celebrates 350 year anniversary

“Let us look forward to the future with the same faith and confidence that has sustained us in our faith for so many centuries.”

June 09, 2012

To mark 350 years of St. Francis Xavier parish serving the community and spreading the Gospel message to the many generations of faithful in Southern Maryland, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, celebrated a Mass on Saturday, June 9, 2012 at the parish. St. Francis Xavier is the oldest Catholic Church in the original 13 colonies.

The parish began as a mission, which not only brought the community together in prayer, but also helped to shape the town and later St. Mary’s County, with farming and business activities on the grounds. In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl described how the mission of evangelization was strong even in colonial times.

“Father Andrew White, one of the key pioneers in the Maryland colony, in 1634 landed on Saint Clement’s Island,” said the Cardinal. “The first Mass was a source and sign of our unity, identity and heritage. The Eucharist is our share in Christ’s salvation.”

Newtowne, established in 1640, was the first settlement in the Maryland province after the original one was established at St. Mary’s City. The Jesuit priests began missionary activity in the area during that same year. However, chapels and churches were not built for fear of retribution by the English authorities. In 1645 and again in 1655, anti-Catholic activities caused the Jesuit missionaries to flee, but they courageously returned each time to resume their work.

In 1661, William and Temperance Bretton donated one and one-half acres of their land so that the congregation at Newtowne could build a chapel and establish a cemetery. The chapel was built in 1662. “William and Temperance were doing their part as evangelizers, to spread the Gospel message by doing what they could – giving a place to worship and to bury the dead,” said Cardinal Wuerl.

As Catholics 350 years later, we are called to be part of the New Evangelization and to do our part to share the Gospel message. “The unwavering message and call that we have as Catholics has not changed even though the world around us has changed to be more secular, materialistic and individualistic. Where our faith came from and how that faith has shaped who we are remains the same,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

The Protestant Revolution of 1689, the Test Act of 1704, and many similar acts by the colonial legislature drove missionary activity underground. Despite the continuing anti-Catholic environment, a new chapel with no external adornment indicating its religious intent was built in 1731. As religious intolerance continued to wane prior to the Revolutionary War, a front addition providing a vestibule below and a choir loft above was constructed in 1767. The parish stands today as a living memorial to the faith of those who came to America in search of freedom for new opportunities and to worship according to their consciences.

St. Francis Xavier Church, Newtowne Manor and the seven and one-half acres surrounding them were conveyed to the Archdiocese of Washington in 1967, when the Society of Jesus withdrew from Newtowne to work in other areas. Realizing the religious, historical and archeological significance of these buildings, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, then-Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey, determined that they must be restored and preserved to maintain our link with the earliest days of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

“What we celebrate today, then, is the fidelity of this portion of God’s family to the mission of the Church, to God’s plan, to God’s word, to God’s sacramental presence with us and to the recognition of our identity as God’s family,” said the Cardinal. “But we do not just celebrate the past and look back on the accomplishments of the parish. Today we look also to the present moment and to the future. It is oOur turn to pass on the faith as did our ancestors all these many years. Our celebration today is of the faith and of this family and of the way this community has fostered and loved the faith.”

The Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 600,000 Catholics living in Washington, DC, and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

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