Nearly three and one-half centuries of history, beginning with the establishment of Catholicism in English America, have been witnessed by Newtowne, Maryland. As its name implies, Newtowne was the first settlement in the Maryland province after the original at St. Mary’s City. Its geographic location places it within view of St. Clement’s Island where the English colonists first landed in 1634. Prior to its settlement by the colonists, the Piscataway Indians and their forebearers had occupied the site for many centuries.
At the invitation of William Bretton, who had received a patent from Cecelius Calvert in 1640 for the 750 acres that comprised Newtowne Neck, the Jesuit priests began missionary activity in the area during that same year. However, chapels and churches were not built to ensure that Catholics gave no cause for criticism 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.
Not until the ascendancy of Charles II in 1660 did the colony enjoy a period of peace. Religious toleration for all, as originally intended by the founders of Maryland, was re-established. In 1661 William Bretton and his wife, Temperance, 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 and the cemetery has continued in use since that time.
The Society of Jesus purchased Bretton’s property, an 850-acre tract known as the Manor of Little Bretton, in 1668 for forty thousand pounds of tobacco. Using the manor as a headquarters, they established and maintained missions in other parts of the colonies. Their farming and other business activities gradually flourished and enabled them to support their apostolic work at Newtowne and other areas of St. Mary’s County. In the Newtowne Ledger there are many entries for the “Newtowne Factory”, evidence of the thriving business activities conducted there.
The Protestant Rebellion of 1689, the Intolerant Act of 1704, and many similar acts by the colonial legislature drove missionary activity underground. Despite the anti-Catholic environment, a new chapel with no external adornment indicating its religious intent was built in 1731. Archaeological investigations have unearthed the foundation of a brick manor house constructed adjacent to the chapel at about the same time. As religious intolerance continued to wane prior to the War of Revolution, a front addition providing a vestibule below and a choir loft above was constructed in 1767. Because of its semi-octagonal form, the brick addition gave the original rectangular frame structure a shape that is unusual, if not unique, in Maryland ecclesiastical architecture.
During the mid and late eighteenth century several barns and many out buildings for blacksmith work, tanning of hides, shoe-making and flour-milling were built. In 1789 a one and one-half story manor house was constructed immediately adjacent to the one constructed during the 1730s.
Another significant building program was begun following the War of 1812. A semi-octagonal addition was made to the rear of the church in 1816, thereby providing a sacristy, confessional and waiting room. The second story of the manor house was raised to its present day height and the ceremonies of the parish were carried out on a grand scale. When the missionaries moved their headquarters to Leonardtown in 1868, the manor retained its function as a working farm and house for the farm manager.
In 1967, when the Society of Jesus withdrew from Newtowne to work in other areas, St. Francis Xavier Church, Newtowne Manor and the seven and one-half acres surrounding them were conveyed to the Archdiocese of Washington. Realizing the religious, historical and archeological significance of these buildings, both of which are on the national Register of Historic Places, the 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. Completion of the church restoration was the first and most important step toward that goal.
Prior to beginning construction work, several studies were commissioned in order to obtain a more complete and accurate understanding of the history and development of the site and its historic structures. An archaeological survey of the site unearthed the foundation of a manor house dating from the 1730’s, as well as thousands of artifacts relating to the Indian and colonial inhabitants of Newtowne Neck. The scientific method of dendrochronology was employed to obtain exact dates of construction for the church nave and sanctuary (1731) and the manor house (1789). Paint analysis has provided a detailed history of the structures from their construction through their subsequent restorations and modifications. A thorough architectural study of the church structure was carried out prior to preparing plans for its restoration to the 18th century style. The extensive preparations and the generosity of so many contributors have resulted in an accurate and detailed restoration of the church as it was in the mid-eighteenth century.
When one stands on the hallowed site, there is an awareness of how little time has affected the location and its historic structures. The mind’s eye can visualize the Indians who lived here in their small villages for many centuries, and the Jesuit missionaries and their congregations who lived and worshipped here for more than three centuries, and the commerce that developed and flourished. The significance of Newtowne cannot be diminished. It represents more than the site of the oldest Catholic Church in continuous use in the English colonies. It stands as a living memorial to the faith of those who came to America in search of freedom and new opportunities, and hoping to worship according to their consciences.
For more on the history and archeological record see the 350th Anniversary pages and the accompanying lecture series.