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Newtowne, as its name implies, was the first settlement in the Maryland province after the original at St. Mary’s City. In 1640, the Jesuit priests began missionary activity in the area during that same year. However, chapels and churches were not built for fear of retribution by the English authorities. As tensions rose, in 1645 and again in 1655, anti-Catholic activities caused the Jesuit missionaries to flee, but they courageously returned each time to resume their work.
In 1661, William Bretton and his wife donated one and one-half acres of their land so that the congregation at Newtowne could build a chapel and establish a cemetery. The chapel was built in 1662, and the cemetery has continued in use since that time. St. Francis Xavier is the oldest Catholic Church in the original 13 colonies.
To mark 350 years of the parish serving the community and spreading the Gospel message to the many generations of faithful in Southern Maryland, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, celebrated a Mass at St. Francis Xavier on Saturday, June 9.
The Society of Jesus purchased Bretton’s property, an 850-acre tract known as the Manor of Little Bretton, in 1668 for forty thousand pounds of tobacco. Using the manor as a headquarters, they established and maintained missions in other parts of the colonies. Their farming and other business activities gradually flourished and enabled them to support their apostolic work at Newtowne and other areas of St. Mary’s County.
The Protestant Revolution of 1689, the Test Act of 1704, and many similar acts by the colonial legislature drove missionary activity underground. Despite the continuing anti-Catholic environment, a new chapel with no external adornment indicating its religious intent was built in 1731. As religious intolerance continued to wane prior to the Revolutionary War, a front addition providing a vestibule below and a choir loft above was constructed in 1767.
St. Francis Xavier Church, Newtowne Manor and the seven and one-half acres surrounding them were conveyed to the Archdiocese of Washington in 1967, when the Society of Jesus withdrew from Newtowne to work in other areas. Realizing the religious, historical and archeological significance of these buildings, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, then Archbishop of Washington, James Cardinal Hickey, determined that they must be restored and preserved to maintain our link with the earliest days of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
Prior to beginning of the needed construction work, several studies were commissioned in order to obtain a more complete and accurate understanding of the history and development of the site and its historic structures. An archaeological survey of the site unearthed the foundation of a manor house dating from the 1730’s, as well as thousands of artifacts relating to the Indian and colonial inhabitants of Newtowne Neck.
The parish stands as a living memorial to the faith of those who came to America in search of freedom for new opportunities and to worship according to their consciences.
Source: The Archdiocese of Washington
St. Francis Xavier Church Representing Religious Freedom