The Unique Connection of Saint Mary to the Birth of Catholicism in the United States

Statue of Archbishop John Carroll on the campus of Georgetown University (Image courtesy of Getty)

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1788, Colonel John Fitzgerald, a well-known and popular host in Alexandria, invited a prominent group of Maryland and Virginia citizens to his home for dinner (George Washington was among those invited). During that gathering, the need for a Catholic church in Alexandria arose. Colonel Fitzgerald agreed to spearhead the drive for funds, while Thorton Alexander (heir of John Alexander) agreed to donate an acre of land at the corner of Washington and Church Streets, the current location of the cemetery today. Washington also agreed to make a financial contribution, equaling approximately $1,200 in today’s terms.

Bishop John Carroll, S.J. became a key component in the overall establishment of the Catholic church in America. Born in 1738, Carroll was a member of one of colonial Maryland’s wealthiest families (his cousin, Charles Carroll of Carlloton, singed the Declaration of Independence). Ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1761, Father Carroll taught at universities in Belgium, France until returning to Maryland in the States to live with his widowed mother.

John Carroll was a strong advocate of freedom for the American colonies. In 1776, he took part in a diplomatic mission with Charles Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Although the mission failed, Carroll’s friendship with Benjamin Franklin would later lead him to recommend that the Pope appoint Carroll as the head of the American church. Father Carroll also maintained a cordial relationship with many prominent non-Catholics, including George Washington. He refused to let the church in America be a “mission” church; rather, he wanted an independent American church that would select its own leaders (i.e., bishops) and answerable directly to the Pope.

He also realized that America needed to develop a native clergy. Americans had to sail to Europe for seminary teaching, an expense only a few families could afford. This motivated him to establish Georgetown College in 1789 (present day University of Georgetown). The founding of the college proved pivotal for Alexandria, as the presence of the college provided a steady supply of priests for Saint Mary. Father Carroll was named the first Bishop of the new United States in 1789 by the Vatican.

Commencement of the actual construction of the Church of Saint Mary took several years. According to archives, construction materials were accumulated over a period of time and it was never completely finished. One account states that the building was “unroofed.” When Bishop Carroll came to Alexandria on July 3, 1796, for the first confirmation held in the new parish, he found the parishioners still busy firing brick and laying the foundation of the little chapel. The Confirmation was probably held at the home of Colonel Fitzgerald, and may have been the first Confirmation in Virginia. The small chapel was used until the purchase of the Chapel Alley property by Father Ignatius Neale, SJ in 1810.

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