For The Dialog
CORDOVA, Md. — Childhood friends Margaret Edmunds and Henrietta Callahan Wood stepped back 80 years Sunday as they walked through Old St. Joseph’s Mission Church.
They pointed to where their families used to sit every Sunday for Mass, and stopped at the altar rail to recall how they received their first Communion in 1936. Wood pointed to the donors’ names on many of the church’s stained glass windows, telling how she was related to many of them.
Bishop Malooly and Father Jim Nash, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul in nearby Easton of which St. Joseph is a mission, arrived by horse-drawn carriage before Mass celebrating the 250th anniversary of Old St. Joseph Mission in Cordova, Md. (The Dialog/Gary Morton)
They were among the elders of more than 400 people who came to Old St. Joseph’s on July 12 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of its founding.
That they could reconnect with one another – Edmunds traveled from her home in Fort Collins, Colo., and Wood from nearby Caroline County – fit nicely with the one of the themes of the day as cited by Bishop Malooly in his homily. The bishop spoke of connections, of freedom, and of recommitment.
He connected the story of Amos in the first reading, St. Paul, who authored the second reading, and the Apostles in the Gospel reading whom Jesus sent in pairs with only the clothes on their backs to spread the word of God to Father Joseph Mosley, the Jesuit priest sent from a mission called Old Bohemia Plantation near Middletown, Del., to minister to Catholics on the Lower Eastern Shore. Father Mosely arrived here in March 1765 to establish a church on land he had purchased.
“Now it is our time to actually talk about our faith. … We need to tell people the Good News, much like Father Mosley did … of what God has given us,” Bishop Malooly said.
Standing in the yard of the church established 11 years before the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the colonists’ freedom from English rule, the bishop noted: “Every Mass we celebrate our freedom. Our true freedom comes from this altar because we have been given salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Proclamations honoring the 250th anniversary were presented by Maryalnd State Sen. Adelaide Eckardt and Delegate Johnny Mautz, whose districts include Cordova; from Gov. Larry Hogan, the senate, and the House of Delegates were also presented after the Mass.
The celebration mixed the historic with the present. Since the church is not large enough to seat all those expected for the anniversary Mass, a large tent with an altar and seating for 400 was erected in the churchyard, between the church, its cemetery and a field of towering green corn stalks.
Bishop Malooly and Father Jim Nash, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul in nearby Easton of which St. Joseph is a mission, arrived by horse-drawn carriage before Mass.
They arrived during an hour-long musical prelude by choirs from St. Joseph and from Ss. Peter and Paul and a second mission, St. Michael’s in the town of St. Michaels. The voices alternated with the Bells of the Bay handbell choir. The repertoire included hymns from the 1500s, which parish music director Krys Kozinski said would still would have been popular in Colonial times, to contemporary works.
Nearby, three women in vintage dress from the War of 1812 era prepared games of the Colonial period for children, using materials provided by the Talbot County Historical Society.
Lunch and bluegrass music followed Mass.
The church is perhaps best known for its annual jousting tournament, held on the first Monday of August every year; this year’s tournament will be Aug. 5. Jousting is the official sport of Maryland. Unlike the jousts of the Middle Ages, jousting Maryland style has “knights” on horseback, without armor, trying to spear small rings hung over the course. St. Joseph’s tournament began its annual run in 1868.
But the church stands as a monument to religious freedom as well as to the longevity of the Catholic faith on the Eastern Shore.
Its appearance alone sets Old St. Joseph’s apart from other churches in the diocese. It is a typical Colonial-era farmhouse, said Scott Wood, a church trustee who also is cemetery sexton. Bishop Malooly recalled that its appearance confused him on his first visit. “I came up to a farmhouse and thought I made a mistake,” he said. “Then I saw Scott Wood and knew I was in the right place.”
St. Joseph’s design befits its history, Wood said, since Maryland law banned public celebration of Mass when Old St. Joseph’s was built. But homeowners were allowed to have chapels in their homes, so Father Mosley, during the Revolutionary War, constructed a two-story “farmhouse” that included his living space on the second floor and the “chapel,” which became St. Joseph, on the first, thus evading the law. When he died in 1787, he was buried beneath the sanctuary, which now lies beneath the choir loft.
Mass has been celebrated regularly at St. Joseph’s ever since it was built; attendance now averages 75 people each Sunday.
The house portion was enlarged in 1848 and the church was expanded, with a circular sanctuary added, in 1903.
Father Mosley served a far-flung 18th century Catholic population, mostly in Talbot and Caroline County but extending as far as 60 miles away, by horseback, staying with Catholic families’ homes where he celebrated Mass and conducted religion classes. Given the travel conditions of the time, he made it to the outlying areas only twice a year; the other stations were served more frequently.
While transportation has improved dramatically since Father Mosley’s time, Old St. Joseph’s remains in a secluded, rural area even though it is only a little more than an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, situated on the densely populated I-95 corridor across the Chesapeake Bay from Cordova on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
For the families that still attend, or were once parishioners, the July 12 celebration was like an extended family reunion. Family roots on the Eastern Shore run deep, many at Old St. Joseph’s are interrelated.
Scott Wood, for example, noted that his father and Henrietta Callahan Wood’s husband were cousins.
Scott Wood’s roots run deeper than most. His father’s side goes back some 150 years to the Cordova area, while his mother’s ancestors were among the first colonists in Maryland, arriving in 1634 aboard Lord Baltimore’s ships the Ark and the Dove
Bob Connolly, an usher for the Mass, grew up about a mile from the church on a farm where his 95-year-old mother, Marie, still lives. “My great-grandfather was the first on the farm,” he said.
He took pride in Old St. Joseph’s anniversary, noting that “we are a small parish out in a rural area. That the bishop would be with us and the dignitaries and the priests … I’m just overwhelmed.”
Church trustee Mike Boyle recalled that “My great-grandfather, his family came over here” in the mid-1800s, settling for a while in New Jersey before moving to the Eastern Shore. Their farm remains, and Boyle’s father bought an adjacent farm.
“Family is a big thing; our family stayed in the area,” Boyle said. Other families have similar roots to Old St. Joseph’s, he noted, citing the Callahans, the Slaughters and the Shortalls as examples.
Boyle also expanded the circle of connections that Bishop Malooly had made in his homily.
“We were founded by a Jesuit priest, and the Pope (Francis) is a Jesuit, too, so I guess we have a connection there,” he said.