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Jesuits of Georgetown University visit historic Catholic sites on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Diocese of Wilmington: ‘Where it all started’

Father Ron Anton, S.J., during Mass Saturday, Sept. 24, at St. Francis Xavier Shrine, or “Old Bohemia” near Warwick, Md. Dialog photo/Connie Connolly

WARWICK, Md. – About 30 Jesuit priests from Georgetown University spent a day exploring the roots of the Roman Catholicism in colonial Maryland.

The first stop on the field trip was St. Francis Xavier Shrine in the rolling Cecil County countryside.

That setting, and others on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, allowed the educators and their colleagues in the Society of Jesus to journey back to the days when their predecessors posed as gentleman farmers to minister clandestinely to Catholics in the English colonies.

Members of the Old Bohemia Historical Society hosted the casually dressed priests who arrived by charter bus at about 10:30 a.m.

Clarice Kwasniewski, OBHS publicity chairperson, greeted the guests seated in the straight-backed pews of the historic church.

“A lot of churches were started from ‘Old Bo’,” Kwasniewski said. The church is open for special Masses and is a mission of St. Joseph Church in nearby Middletown, Delaware.

The restored church and rectory are surrounded by a well-manicured, fenced lawn, a cemetery, tenant house and barn, and 120 acres of farmland.

Missing from the landscape is the school established in 1745 by Father Thomas Poulton, S.J., Bohemia Academy.

Bishop John Carroll and his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence were educated at the school. In the existing school records, John Carroll is known as “Jacky,” who founded Georgetown University in 1789.

“What were his grades?” asked one Georgetown professor, to laughter from his colleagues.

“I’m sure they were excellent,” Kwasniewski replied, smiling.

According to charlescarrollhouse.org, “Young Charles Carroll, known as “Charley” to his parents, was sent in 1747, at the age of ten, to Maryland’s eastern shore, along with his cousin John Carroll, to study secretly at the Jesuit school at Bohemia Manor in Cecil County. By 1749, Charley and John, who would later become the first American Catholic Bishop, were sent to study at St. Omer in French Flanders.”

Father Gregory Chisholm, S.J., is superior of the Jesuit Community of the USA East Province in Baltimore. Originally from Harlem in New York City, he said he wanted to “see it rather than read about” the history of the colonial Catholic founders.

“This part of the province has a colonial history of ownership and operation of plantations, and a history of involvement in slavery, both the development of slavery in the church and also the end of that in the process,” Father Chisholm said. “I wanted to see what this part of the world was like.”

Founded in 1704 by Father Thomas Mansell, S.J., Bohemia Mission is one of the oldest permanent Catholic establishments in the English colonies.

“In some ways, this is where it all started,” Father Leon Hooper, S.J., said. He was examining some of the shrine’s artifacts behind glass in the museum section of the old rectory.

Father Hooper is director of the Woodstock Jesuit Library at Georgetown University. He said the community goes on an annual field trip, and part of this year’s excursion included visiting colonial mansions with house chapels, including Bowlingly estate, granted in 1659 and located on the Chester River in Queenstown, Md.

The Neale family, who owned the estate during the colonial period, sent two of their sons to school at Old Bohemia, according to Father Hooper. One died while he was a student, but Leonard Neale, was the first Catholic bishop ordained in the U.S.

“So, the first two bishops went to school here,” Father Hooper said. “And the first one ordained in the U.S. was a student here. There’s huge history here. I mean, this is the (beginning of the) history of the church in the United States. At that time, the Bishop of Baltimore was the Bishop of the U.S., basically — that was the first diocese. The start of the church in this country was (through) people educated here.”

Two members of the Neale family became presidents of Georgetown University.

Georgetown University alumna Kathy Kobus is secretary of the Old Bohemia Historical Society and provided historical information to the Jesuits. The Middletown resident believes that Bohemia Academy played a pivotal role in the history of the university.

Following Mass celebrated by Father Ron Anton, S.J., who organized the trip, the group continued their journey through Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore to visit St. Joseph Church in Cordova and St. Peter Church in Queenstown. The Jesuits completed their day-long tour with dinner at Kent Narrows.