Southern Maryland: discovering religious freedom and family roots

Centerpiece of the revitalized capital of St. Mary's site is the commanding 25-foot high re-incarnation of the Jesuit chapel that the governor locked up over three centuries ago Photo: Don Winter

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2012 - The 17th century did not end well for St. Mary’s City – Maryland’s original colonial capital - and maybe for my Dutch immigrant ancestor who lived there.

The once prosperous wilderness city English settlers founded in 1634 was replaced in 1695 by Annapolis. Tensions among founders, colonists, and the English government about religious practice brought the capital change that sent the original seat of government and its citizenry into hardship and oblivion.

By 1704, the Jesuits’ imposing brick chapel that was central to Catholic worship in the old capital was ordered locked forever by the governor. The church, the city and its prosperity vanished.

Garrett Van Sweringen, my ancestor and prominent leader in the colony, died in St. Mary’s in 1698 - possibly another “victim” of the demise.

Fortunately, the city’s archaeological evidence remained in place because agriculture was the only activity covering remains of the old city until the digging began in the 1930’s.

The original chapel's foundation

The original chapel’s foundation (click to enlarge)

Another survivor was the radical idea of religious freedom that attracted repressed Europeans to the Maryland (Mary’s land) colony. In 1649, the Maryland General Assembly passed The Act Concerning Religion, one of the first laws in North America that allowed for what was called “liberty of conscience,” an idea that eventually became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Garrett was a Catholic and one of the colony’s most prominent leaders. As I surveyed the history, I concluded he must have been a staunch supporter of the act.

Religious Freedom Byway

As I set out along Southern Maryland’s Religious Freedom National Scenic Byway that winds through Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties, I stopped at several remaining sentinels of the ideas the state’s pioneers developed in those early days.

Inside tiny Christ Episcopal Church at Chaptico, I found early 17th century roots and War of 1812 history. The Thomas Stone National Historic Site depicts wealthy 18th century planter life just 25 miles outside Washington, DC,  and the lifestyle of a Declaration of Independence signer.

Moving along a leafy roadway to the 1790 Carmelite Monastery grounds, I felt some of the same serenity that probably brought the founding Belgian nuns to that site.

Maryland’s earliest days are on exhibit in St. Clement’s Island Museum near the shore where the original settlers anchored the Ark and the Dove in 1634. On the opposite side of the peninsula, Sotterley Plantation on the Patuxent River dates to 1703 as the only remaining Tidewater property open to the public.

A Reconstructed Symbol 

With its reconstructed colonial era edifices, Historic St. Mary’s City is the most significant stop on the byway. Sharing land and St. Mary’s River views with St. Mary’s College, the living history location holds meticulously researched and reconstructed buildings - including the first state house, the inn Garrett van Sweringen built, a replica of The Maryland Dove ship, a museum shop, and a working tobacco farm.

Centerpiece of the revitalized capital site is the commanding 25-foot high re-incarnation of the Jesuit chapel that the governor locked up over three centuries ago. Built on original cross-shaped foundations that are three feet thick and five feet deep, the chapel of handmade bricks was opened three years ago after decades of research, $3.5 million in fundraising by private donors, and construction with 17th century methods.

Onsite, I met Silas Hurry, a collections curator with Historic St. Mary’s City, and he told me the chapel awaits additional funding for interior furnishings, and that it will never be used for worship.

“The chapel will never be consecrated because it is a state-owned building,” said Hurry. “Rather, it stands as a reminder to visitors of the colony’s religious freedom role in early America.”

An Ambitious and Resilient Colonist

We talked about Garrett who was likely a parishioner of the original congretation.

He was a talented, ambitious and cultured man, the offspring of prosperous 17th century Dutch nobility, Hurry said.

“Any urban sophistication in the original Maryland capital could be credited to Van Sweringen,” he said. “He opened one of the first coffee houses in America, provided medical services to the citizenry, and conducted trade with distant ports. He also brought printing to the colony.”

Reproduction colonial era sailing ship (click to enlarge)

Reproduction colonial era sailing ship (click to enlarge)

“He was also resilient,” Hurry said. “During his 62 years, he endured shipwreck on his original journey to the New World, pillage and fire of his first home in Delaware, then the death of his first wife. When the Maryland government was moved from St. Mary’s City, he lost his livelihood. But with every setback, he responded with vigor and imagination to find new ways to success.”

As we stepped into Garrett’s reconstructed inn, Hurry said the lodging had the finest accommodations, food, and drink in the colony, and was therefore a popular meeting place for government and economic leaders. A painting on one of the inn walls depicts Garrett’s second wife Mary and her daughter working with staff to prepare a special dinner for Governor Copley and his council.

“Van Sweringen’s inn appealed to wealthier customers who could pay for better services than public inns, or ordinaries,” said Hurry. “His guests likely ranged from the Calverts to royal governors and elite planters.”

It was there inside walls that recall my ancestor’s life and leadership that I really came to appreciate the legacy he left for his thousands of descendants and American culture.

And I imagine he probably rests with about 500 other colonists beneath the new chapel which stands as a symbol of an American freedom so taken for granted today yet was such a radical concept in 17th century Maryland.

Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.


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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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