Why did American Catholicism begin in Baltimore?

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PORTRAIT of Archbishop John Carroll.
The answer is a person: John Carroll. The Carrolls were the “First Family” of American Catholicism, arriving in Maryland in 1688. The New World was not hospitable: Catholics were subject to double taxes, deprived of the right to vote, worship, hold office, and educate their children. Masses were held in private, and Jesuits illegally taught in secret schools.

The Carrolls had money, acquired land and influence, and sent their sons to be schooled abroad. Charles Carroll would become the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He and his cousin Daniel—who would be one of the two Catholic signers of the United States Constitution—entered Maryland politics after being active on the new national scene. Daniel’s brother John remained in France after finishing his education, taking final vows as a Jesuit in 1771. Rome suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773. John Carroll went home to Maryland, declaring to his mother: “The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God would be immediate death.”

What he got instead was a diocese. How? Through family connections, John became useful to the Continental Congress in 1776 and made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin—a curious man to befriend for someone seeking anonymity. John also defended his faith publicly in the newspapers and published a tract for his fellow Catholics.

In 1783 he organized a meeting of ex-Jesuits in Maryland to petition Rome for the reinstatement of their superior, Father John Lewis. The Holy See consulted that most celebrated American, Franklin, for his opinion. Franklin recommended Carroll instead as the “Superior of the Mission in the thirteen United States.” By 1789, Baltimore, where Carroll had lived since 1786, became the first diocese of the United States with Carroll ordained its first bishop (though Carroll had to go England for his ordination, which took place on August 15, 1790 in the chapel of the Weld family in Lulworth Castle, Dorset).

In a 25-year episcopacy John Carroll accomplished miracles. He pushed for the creation of Georgetown College, opened the first seminary (St. Mary’s in Baltimore), approved the founding of the Visitation Sisters, brought in Dominicans, and encouraged Elizabeth Seton to begin the American Sisters of Charity to educate girls. Not waiting on Rome, he restored the Jesuits in America by affiliating them through the influence of Catherine the Great with Russians who had evaded the suppression of the order.

Carroll also encouraged lay leadership by instituting trusteeship of church properties. He supported Mass in the vernacular, the separation of church and state, and ecumenism among Christian denominations. In the meantime his little diocese grew to include the West Indies and the Louisiana Territory. By the time Carroll died, Baltimore had become an archdiocese overseeing the four sees of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Bardstown, Kentucky.

1 Timothy 3:1-7; 4:12-16; 2 Timothy 2:1-7; 4:1-5

History of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore

The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present by Jay P. Dolan. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992)
Creative Fidelity: American Catholic Intellectual Traditions, ed. by R. Scott Appleby, Patricia Byrne, and William L. Portier (Orbis Books, 2004)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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1 Site Comments

  1. Angela 11 year ago

    I thought that the Catholic religion was brought to America by the Spanards through the Southwest in New Mexico? Isn't the Church in Albuquerque over 400 years old? How about the Church in Santa Fe?

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