According to good authority, the first European to set foot on what we know as the Eastern Shore of Maryland was Giovanni Verrazano, in 1524. This Florentine sea captain sailed in the service of the French King, Francis I. Verrazano anchored his vessel, "THE DAUPHINE", offshore in Chincoteague Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean near the present boundary line that separates Maryland and Virginia. He and his crew communicated with the friendly Assateague Indians and marched, presumably, about eight miles inland until halted by the swamps and mosquitoes of the headwaters of the Pocomoke River, a stream that empties into the Chesapeake Bay. We do not know that Verrazano ever entered the Chesapeake, but he is considered to be the first European to have set foot in what is now the Diocese of Wilmington. His probable reason for stopping was to replenish his water supply.
1570---JESUITS FROM CUBA
It was forty-six years before white men again set foot on the Delmarva Peninsula. In 1570 Jesuits from Havana, Cuba, established a Mission on the York River in Virginia. These settlers crossed over to Smith's Island at the very tip of the Virginia Eastern Shore, and it could very well be that is was they who named the Chesapeake "The Bay of the Mother of God".
1634---LANDING IN MARYLAND
Sixty-four years later, on March 25, 1634, two ships from England, "THE ARK" and "THE DOVE", dropped anchor off St. Clement's (now Blackiston"s) Island. When they did, white men and Catholicism began the first permanent establishment in what is now the State of Maryland. On that memorable day, after a long and tedious voyage of seven months, Governor Leonard Calvert led twenty Catholic "gentlemen" and between two hundred and three hundred Catholic and Protestant indentured servants to this first haven of real religious freedom in the New World. In that landing party were two Jesuit priests, Fathers Andrew White and John Altham (alias Gravesnor), and a Jesuit lay brother, Thomas Gervase. Their first important action on landing was to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Thanksgiving to Almighty God. After Mass, the Catholic members of the group fashioned a huge cross out of wood, and, in solemn procession headed by their spiritual leaders, went on to a pre-selected site and erected the cross while reciting the Litany of the Holy Cross.
1639---KENT ISLAND MISSION
Jesuit records indicate that, by 1619, Father Altham had established a Mission on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on the very tip of Kent Island, later referred to as Bloody Point. It was here that the first chapel was built for Catholic use on the Eastern Shore. No doubt this chapel, believed to have been no bigger than an Indian hut, was established to serve the Catholic French-Indians who came down from Canada by way of the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay to trade with the English of Virginia. Claiborne, from Virginia, had already established a trading post on Kent Island about 1627.
Father Altham died at his Kent Island Mission in 1640. After his death, we hear no more about the Mission on the tip of Kent Island. Other Jesuits may have followed him to serve the spiritual needs of the Catholics in that area, but, if they did, we have no record of it. But at least we do know that the first establishment of the Catholic Church in our Diocese was made by 1619 on Kent Island.
FOUR CATHOLIC COLONIES
For some reason, Catholics seem to have aggregated to the KENT ISLAND--WYE RIVER area. For a long time this area had the largest and most flourishing Catholic population on the Eastern Shore. It had the most large homes with "chapel rooms" and its immediate vicinity, as we shall see, became dotted with a succession of chapels. A second area where a Catholic colony developed almost simultaneously with that of the Kent Island--Wye River area was the bayshore of DORCHESTER COUNTY. James's Island, Taylor's Island, Hooper's Island, etc., were the site of this second largest settlement of Catholics on the Eastern Shore. A third community of Catholics developed around the BOHEMIA RIVER in Cecil County very early. Most of this group were from among the settlers brought to this country from England by Colonel George Talbot, a cousin of the Lords Baltimore. The size of this group of Catholics was fairly considerable by the 1680's. Finally, there was a very small fourth colony of Catholics around LEWES, DELAWARE, before the end of the seventeenth century. But here there was constant disagreement over the boundaries between the Maryland Proprietor and William Penn, the Delaware Proprietor, with the result that these Catholic settlers eventually moved over to the western part of the peninsula along the bayshore.
1650's---RICH NECK MANOR CHAPEL
About fourteen or fifteen years after the first chapel in our diocese was built on Kent Island, a second chapel appeared on the Eastern Shore. This one was built in Talbot County---just across the water from Kent Island on a property known as Rich Neck Manor. The Rich Neck Manor property was first granted to Capt. William Mitchell on October 20, 1651. It's next owner was Philip Land of St. Mary's County. It is not known which of these two gentleman built the Rich Neck Manor Chapel, but local historians say that it was probably built in the early 1650's and that it was doubtlessly for Catholic use. The Rich Neck Manor Chapel still stands and is in an excellent state of preservation. It is particularly interesting in its architectural detail.
1675---1689: WYE CHAPEL
Whether or not it can ever be proved that the Rich Neck Manor Chapel was built by Catholics for Catholic use, a third chapel, known as the Wye Chapel, was built sometime between 1675 and 1689. This chapel was built about a mile or two from the Rich Neck Manor Chapel---at the early colonial town of Dorchester at the mouth of the Wye River, on a three hundred acre tract called "Morgan's St. Michael's." The property on which Wye Chapel was built belonged to Henry Morgan, who had come to Maryland in 1637 and settled on Kent Island in 1654.
It was Henry Morgan's daughter, Frances, who married Colonel Peter Sayre, one of the most prominent men in the colony, and an outstanding Catholic. Peter and Frances Sayre lived at Doncaster-Town, also called Wye-Town. Henry Morgan's other daughter, Barbara, married John Rousby, who, while not a Catholic, was also very prominent in the colony. The Rousby's daughter, Margaret, married Richard Bennett III, the largest landowner in the colony and another outstanding Catholic layman.
Wye Chapel could have been built by Henry Morgan himself, or even more likely, by his son-in-law Peter Sayre, for Peter was a builder, having built the first Court House in that part of Kent County which is now Talbot County. In any event, Wye Chapel was for a period of time the center of Catholicism on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It started out certainly to be a permanent missionary establishment and had a succession of priests attached to it during the time of its existence. But then, in 1689, the Orange Men's Rebellion, which resulted in the downfall of the Stuarts, forced Catholic priests to flee their posts in Maryland and seek hiding where they could. Thus we find that Father Nicholas Gulick, a German Jesuit who was probably the first priest in charge of the Wye-Town Mission, fled to Accomac County in Virginia, and the Jesuits decided to abandon the Wye River area as perhaps being too prominent or conspicuous a place for religious activity.
After the Jesuits left the Wye River area, Wye Chapel continued to stand and was mentioned in 1709 in the Sheriff's list of Catholic houses of worship for Talbot County. After that, no further mention was made of Wye Chapel for the next few hundred years. Mrs. Morgan Schiller, the present occupant of Wye House, recalls that the nearby foundations of Wye Chapel were still visible within her lifetime. Due to the erosion of the shoreline, those foundations are now under the water in the bay. A pen and ink sketch of Wye Chapel, made in 1695 by one of Mrs. Schiller's ancestors, can be seen today at Wye House.
CHAPEL AND CHAPEL ROOMS
Even though persecution forced the Jesuits to flee, Wye Chapel was not the last chapel to be built in the Wye River area. Across the Wye on Bennett's Point, a nephew of Peter Sayre, John Sayre Blake, had built a chapel on his property, Sportsmen's Hall, before his death in 1735. For more than a hundred years "Sportsmen's Hall" was the "parish church" of many Catholics living in the neighborhood. John Sayre Blake's brother, Philemon Charles Blake, not far away on the Chester River at "Blakeford," did not have a chapel but a "chapel room," as also did the latter's son, Charles, on the Corsica Creek nearby. At Queenstown the manor house known as "Bowlingly" also had its own "chapel room". Other prominent Catholics in the neighborhood, such as Jacob Seth, also had a "chapel room", as did the Halls, Councills, Bannisters and Gaffords.
PERSECUTION IN THE COLONIES
When the above mentioned Orange Men's Rebellion brought William and Mary to the English throne in 1689, persecution of Catholics in England again reared its ugly head, and it was not long before like persecution of Catholics in the Colonies followed. The Church of England, which had been the officially established religion of the Mother Country since 1553, now also became the official religion of the Colonies. So severe was the new wave of persecution that swept through the Colonies that all the Colonists, no matter what their religion, were forced to pay taxes to support the Church of England; and the savage, restrictive English penal laws were reactivated against Catholics in the Colonies. For example, the Maryland Assembly in 1704 passed a law "preventing the growth of popery in this province." Among other things, it stated that any priest who was found guilty of exercising the functions of his office would be fined and imprisoned for six months. If he were convicted a second time for the same offense, he would be deported and punished more severely in England.
FLIGHT FROM SOUTHERN MARYLAND
It was under circumstances such as these that the Catholics of southern Maryland, in desperation, looked beyond Maryland's borders for safer refuge should conditions become even worse. Providentially, at the very time the situation of Catholics in Maryland seemed most unpromising, the Province of Pennsylvania, which then included Delaware, offered such a fair prospect for Catholics that many Maryland Catholics, and some priests along with the laity, began to move toward the borders of this more liberal Province. And that is how the Jesuits came to settle in remote and undeveloped Cecil County as the site of their new establishment.
In selecting Cecil County as their new base of operations, the Jesuits were certainly influenced by the fact there were already several prominent Catholic owners in the neighborhood. You may recall that by the 1680's, a fairly large group of Catholics had already developed around the BOHEMIA RIVER area.
It was in 1704 that the Jesuits made themselves part of that already established colony of Catholics in the Bohemia River area. Then, in 1707, Queen Anne relaxed the penal laws to the extent of allowing Catholics to practice their religion privately, so that, from 1707, although open Catholic services were still forbidden, Catholic priests were now free to officiate in private homes. Thereupon, as we have already seen in treating the Wye River area, the wealthier Catholic landowners fixed chapels in their homes if they did not already secretly have them, and Jesuit priests built houses containing large chapels on their own plantations. Thus the plantations, which already furnished financial support to the Jesuit priests and a refuge in time of trouble, now became centers of Catholic worship. And that was the situation at Old Bohemia not long
after the Jesuits came in 1704.
The Jesuits' home in Cecil County, that also became a center of Catholic worship for the area, was named St. Francis Xavier. A few years after the Jesuits came, James Heath moved from the banks of the Chester River to Worsell Manor, next to the Jesuit Mission. And before long, other prominent Catholics, such as Dr. Hugh Matthews, joined the Bohemia Congregation. But, frankly, Old Bohemia never did become large as a Congregation. The real importance of this establishment was as another base of Jesuit operations for their many Missions. From old Bohemia the Jesuits extended their missionary activities to Eastern Pennsylvania, to all the counties of Delaware, to most of the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, and to even parts of the Western Shore, in Baltimore and Harford Counties.
1745---KENT COUNTY, DELAWARE
In 1754 the Superior of Old Bohemia purchased two hundred thirty-five acres of land in Kent County, Delaware. This property, on the Murderkill River, is near the present town of Frederica. The Jesuits journeyed there from Bohemia to offer Mass several times a year at the home of Peter Lowber, one of whose sons was the first boy to register at Father Pulton's Academy at old Bohemia in 1747.
Nineteen years later, in 1764, Father Joseph Mosely was directed by his Jesuit Superior to go to Bohemia and from there to establish a new Mission farther down on the Eastern Shore---more central and convenient to the many Missions of that region. Perhaps the immediate reason for sending Father Mosely at that particular time was to fulfill the directives of the Will of Edward Neale, of "Bowingly". Edward Neale, who died on Christmas Day, 1760, left in his will fifty pounds sterling for the building of a residence for a priest to care for the Catholics in the Queenstown area. Shortly after Edward Neale's death, land was purchased and a chapel built outside Queenstown at what is now St. Peter's on Route 50. Local tradition says that a chapel house was built there in 1763. Father Mosely, in his account book, refers to the purchase of property there in 1765---about the same time that he purchased the property later known as St. Joseph's, Cordova. For some reason, Father Mosely did not settle at Queenstown but ten miles away, near the present town of Cordova. Perhaps this was to keep him even more central to his other Missions. In any event, in establishing himself at Cordova, Father Mosely was actually placing his rectory ten miles from the Queenstown Congregation he chiefly came to minister to. He always referred to Queenstown as "ye chief congregation." This establishment by Father Mosely of the Mission of St. Joseph's, Cordova, reduced considerably the burden of the Bohemia Mission, leaving to Bohemia the territory on the Eastern Shore north of Queen Anne's County in Maryland and north of Kent County in Delaware.
In 1772 another very important establihment was made from Old Bohemia at what came to be known as St. Mary's, Coffee Run. In New Castle County, Delaware.
The Delaware foundation was of such great importance because it was the first successful permanent missionary establishment in Delaware by the Jesuits. Somewhat like Old Bohemia, the Coffe Run Congregation was not in itself large, but it served a very extensive area, and its incumbent pastor constantly on the road, month after month, in a cycle of ministerial visitations. Three of Coffe Run's most important congregations were in Pennsylvania----at Londonderry Township, at West Chester, and at Concord.
In 1849 Immaculate Conception Parish at Elkton, Maryland, was founded from Old Bohemia by Father George King, at that time rector at Old Bohemia.
CATHOLICISM IN OUR AREA
But now let us come even closer to the territory within which St. Dennis' Parish was founded. Catholicism was not a new establishment in Kent County when St. Dennis' Parish was founded in 1855. Almost two hundred years before, in 1658, the Hebron brothers came over from Sctland and settled near Tolchester.It is known that their home had a "chapel room". Any priest who might have visited them would have had to come from the Jesuit Mission Headquarters in St. Mary's County on the Western Shore of Maryland, for that was the only source of priests for the Eastern Shore until the Wye-Town Mission was established in Talbot County sometime between 1675 and 1689. Within that fourteen year period the Jesuits at Wye-Town served the area. Then, with the return of religious persecution in 1689, priests either disappeared from the area or went into hiding. Any religious ministrations to the people had to be given with the utmost secrecy, and any priest who made himself available to the people for religious purposes was putting himself in great danger. Such was the case with Father John Smith, a Jesuit from New York, who lived in the home of Peter Sayre of Talbot County. Despite the danger involved, Father Smith is known to have exercised the ministry on the Eastern Shore and may have appeared in Kent County. During that difficult period, from 1689 to 1707, the government officials were so sensitive about even the presence of a priest that Peter Sayre was once arraigned before the authorities for harboring Father Smith in his home.
From 1696 until almost the eve of the American Revolution, the Jesuits owned eleven hundred acres of land on the southern bank of the Chester River---between Millington and Kingstown. Most of this property, which has not yet been exactly located along the river between Millington and Crumpton, especially in the Unicorn and Red Lion Branch area.
In 1698 the Sheriff of Kent County reported that there were "no popish priest or lay brother and no public place of worship in Kent County; and only three Papists--
Edmund Mackdonall, Thomas Collins, and James Bruard."
In 1704 the Jesuits came to Old Bohemia, and from there Kent County was included in their missionary activities.
Somewhere around 1735, when the town of Georgetown (Kent County) was laid out, the Jesuits acquired some lots there, no doubt with an eye to future development and establishment. The deed to this Georgetown property was held by the previously mentioned Father Mosely, pastor at St. Joseph's, Cordova. Father Mosely was forced to sell this property to erase some of the financial obligations of the Cordova plantation. This Georgetown property was less than a mile up the road from the present St. Dennis Church at Galena.
Next, from information that has recently come to light, it is more than probable that about the same time the Jesuit Academy for boys existed at Old Bohemia (in the 1740's), a school, or convent, for girls also existed on the James Heath Estate at the Mount Harmon plantation on the Sassafras, a few miles west of Cecilton.
During the 1750's and 1760's, as the account books at Old Bohemia indicate, the Jesuits went regularly to Cully's house in Chestertown. They also made regular trips to a plantation at Still Pond.
It is believed that the Jesuits maintained another residence on one of their tracts on their Chester River property for a period before the Cordova Mission was established in 1765. Jesuit records frequently refer to Fathers James Quinn and James Beadnall as residents of Queen Anne's County. Those two priests probably lived on the Jesuit's Chester River property, and seemed to have exercised the ministry from their Queen Anne's residence for a period of more than twenty years in the mid-eighteenth century. Living so close by, it is likely that they were available, as needed, to help their fellow Jesuits stationed at Old Bohemia in their far-flung mission activities.
After 1765 one of the regular Mission Stations of Father Joseph Mosely, from Cordova, was at the Gafford home in an area called Queen Anne's Forest on the lower regions of Red Lion Creek, about a mile or so northwest of Sudlersville. This area is within the present boundaries of St. Dennis Parish.
In 1820 Father Peter Epinette, writing from Old Bohemia to the Archbishop of Baltimore, stated that he journeyed regularly to the neighborhood of Chestertown to take care of three Catholics families---the Blakes, the Brookes, and the Mitchells. Following Father Epinette at Old Bohemia came the Jesuit Fathers Francis Varin, George King, James Powers, and Matthew Sanders to faithfully continue the work of their stalwart predecessors in that little portion of God's vineyard that in 1855 was founded as St. Dennis Parish.
The present boundaries of St. Dennis' Parish have contained within them some famous Catholics. Among them was the colorful Kitty Knight of Georgetown. Miss Katy Knight, as she was called earlier, lived up the road from Galena, on the Sassafras River. A well known character in her time, Miss Katy lived to the age of eighty-four. She is buried beside the church at Old Bohemia. I suppose the story about her most referred to is her alleged confrontation of the British in the War of 1812.
"When the British sailed up the Sassafras River and burned the towns of Georgetown and Fredericktown, the Knight house was also fired upon. The dauntless Kitty, so the story goes, brushed the soldier aside, and, scattering the firebrands, put them out. This she repeated several times until the young British officer in command of the men, struck by her daring and pluck, said that so brave a bird was worthy of its nest and ordered that the house be left. Another story has it that the young officer said that so brave and beautiful a girl would be a fit bride for a British officer and asked that, if he spare the home, might he come back and claim her, and was given an affirmative reply. Of course, Kitty Knight, with her vigorous Americanism, had no idea of ever wedding the red-coat Britisher, and she never did."
As one of the parishioners of the Old Bohemia Church, Miss Katy was very fond of Father Ambrose Marechal, the rector. When he left to take up his duties at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, and later to become Baltimore's third archbishop, Miss Katy was very "put-out," especially since since she did not care for Father Marechal's successor, an Irishman named Lawrence Peter Phelan. Apparently, Father Phelan did not "socialize," as did Father Marechal. Well, anyway, Miss Katy's attorney-nephew, Hugh Matthews, told Father Marechal in a letter that his aunt said she would not return to church unless Father Marechal came back to Bohemia. Miss Katy was a character, wasn't she? It would be interesting to know what Father Phelan's opinion of her was, especially when she would bring her boy servant to church on hot days so that he could fan her during Mass.
Katy Knight's mother was a twin sister of Dr. William Matthews, a neighbor of the Jesuits at Old Bohemia and a generous benefactor. It was Dr. Matthews who loaned the Jesuits enough money to make the purchase of the plantation of Coffee Run, Delaware, in 1772.
To conclude this sketchy preface to the history of St. Dennis' Parish, we summarize by recalling that Catholics that may have lived in Colonial times in what is now St. Dennis' Parish had their spiritual needs attended to by the Jesuits. Whether any Jesuits ever came to our parish area from the Western Shore in the early days after 1634, or even from the short-lived Kent Island Mission, we do not know. Though the Jesuits probably visited our area from the Wye-Town Mission in Talbot County between 1675 1nd 1689, here again there is no record of it. But certainly after the Jesuits were established at Old Bohemia in 1704, Catholics in our area were included in the jurisdiction of that Mission and remained so for one hundred and fifty-two years until the erection of the original St. Dennis Church was completed in 1856. Even after that, for the period from 1859 to 1876, the Jesuit Mission at Old Bohemia again became responsible for the area. More about that later. Let us CLICK HERE to see how the Parish actually began.