Celebrating Maryland’s Religious Heritage

To Commemorate Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S., Maryland spotlights rich history


Connie Yingling,
Leslie Troy,


BALTIMORE (August 21, 2015) – Maryland is considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America, dating back to its earliest colonial days when the state became a refuge for Catholics sailing from England. As the United States prepares for the first visit of Pope Francis, Maryland is shining a spotlight on its religious heritage.

“Maryland’s history is rooted in the idea of religious freedom,” said Liz Fitzsimmons, executive director, Maryland Office of Tourism. “The first settlers arrived in the 17th century seeking religious tolerance, and the multitude of worship sites across the state are a testament to those that sacrificed much to come to our shores in peaceful pursuit of their faith.”

The Religious Freedom Byway runs 189 miles along the Potomac River through Southern Maryland, from Port Tobacco to Point Lookout. The byway traveler will discover America’s roots of “religious tolerance” amid some of the nation’s oldest churches, located across a peaceful landscape that incorporates the early settlement of Historic St. Mary’s City.

One favorite byway stop is St. Clement's Island, where the earliest Catholic and Protestant settlers first landed aboard the Ark and the Dove in 1634 and the first Catholic Mass in the colonies was held. The Ark and Dove carried about 140 settlers and all of their supplies on a 4-month voyage across the Atlantic from England. The voyagers came at the invitation of the Catholic Lord Baltimore, who imagined Maryland as a society where people of different faiths could live together peacefully.

Probably the most visited destination on the byway is Historic St. Mary's City, an immaculately restored 17th-century village where the colony of Maryland was formed by Leonard Calvert and other settlers in 1634. It is the site of the first Catholic Chapel in the English colonies and is considered the birthplace of religious freedom in America. Religious freedom, granted to all Christians in the Toleration Act, was passed by the Maryland assembly in 1649 in the new settlement called St. Mary's City, which became the first capital of Maryland, and remained so for sixty years until 1695.

Below please find historic religious locations, tours and events throughout the state:

Western Maryland

The Battle of Antietam, fought September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest one-day battle in America’s history. Yet, one of the most noted landmarks on this great field of combat is a house of worship associated with peace. The humble Dunker Church ranks as perhaps one of the most famous churches in American military history.

Known by travelers as the City of Steeples, Cumberland's history is full of interesting stories that make the two-day Steeples and Peeples Tour of its churches and historical sites a delight for people of all ages. It starts at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, established in 1849 on the site of the French and Indian War-era Fort Cumberland, known for its stunning Tiffany windows and the underground tunnels left over from the site’s frontier fort days, which later sheltered enslaved persons that fled via the Underground Railroad. Also included are the Shrine of Saints Peter and Paul, with stained glass windows from Innsbruck, Austria, and breathtaking altar at St. Patrick’s Church, which started in a log cabin in 1791.  Rebuilt in 1851 as a parish dedicated to the large Irish community that flourished in Cumberland in the 19th century, the sanctuary is elegant and majestic with massive columns and an intricately painted ceiling. Established in 1853, B’er Chyim Congregation is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Maryland. A renovation completed in 2014 brought the sanctuary back to decorated walls and ceilings, mimicking the historic paint scheme found under several layers of white paint.

When you’re in Oakland or Grantsville, you’re in the midst of rich Amish and Mennonite heritage. Visit the Swan Meadow School of Oakland, opened more than a hundred years ago. It serves as a K-8 school with a predominantly Amish and Mennonite student body. The Gortner community in Oakland, one of the three extant Amish communities in the state, is more than 160 years old.

Mountain Lake Park Historic District is a community that began in the 1880s as an important center for a Chautauqua-type religious movement in Maryland. The original Victorian resort town includes 145 buildings, many of which are late 19th-century brightly-painted summer homes, which grew out of two American activities: the Methodist Camp Meeting, aimed at spiritual renewal and Chautauqua, a Christian educational and recreational assembly with programs that included lectures and concerts. The resort attracts thousands to the community for symphonies, operas, plays, and nationally prominent speakers.

Mercy Chapel is located near the old rural village site of Selbysport in Garrett County, near Friendsville. It is a rare, 19th-century architecturally-sophisticated octagonal structure built of vertical plank siding from local lumber with a coursed stone foundation. Constructed in 1874, the interior of the one-story one-room chapel is a fine example of local craftsmanship and is virtually unchanged since the time it was built.

 Zion Reformed United Church of Christ , originally The German Reformed Church, was founded in 1770 in Hagerstown, the first church within the town limits and the oldest in Washington County that has been in continuous use as a church since its construction. During the Civil War, the church’s bell tower was used as a lookout by Union troops under the command of General George Armstrong Custer. Erected by German immigrants, who comprised the majority of Hagerstown’s earliest inhabitants and brought with them their religious customs, its churchyard became the final resting place for veterans of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the American Revolution (1774–1781), the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1848), the Civil War (1861–1865) and World War I.

St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, one of the most prominent and historic churches in Oakland, is where U.S. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, and Grover Cleveland attended services. This stone church was built in 1868 from the same sandstone used for B&O and railroad bridges.

Capital Region

On September 14, celebrate the 40th canonization anniversary of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born saint in the U.S. at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, where she lived from 1809 until her death in 1821. A Basilica houses her tomb and the grounds offer a glimpse of the place she lived: the "white house" built for her in 1815, as well as an older "stone house" built around 1750.

Emmitsburg’s beautiful mountain National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes features one of the oldest American replicas of the Lourdes shrine in France. Built about two decades after the apparition of Mary at Lourdes in 1858, it attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year from all over the world. St. Mary's Chapel on the Hill, also known as the Glass Chapel, is the main chapel built on Mount St. Mary's University campus where thousands of pilgrims celebrate Mass at the Grotto.

The Visitation Academy began as St. John’s Benevolent Female Free School, run by the Sisters of Charity in 1824. When these Sisters moved to Emmitsburg in 1846, a group of 11 Visitation Sisters came from Georgetown Visitation to administer the school.  The Sisters purchased three acres of land adjacent to the original building to expand the school and construct an official monastery with cloistered gardens.  More than 1,000 soldiers from both Confederate and Union armies were medically treated during the three month occupation of the buildings and grounds. The Sisters of Charity returned from Emmitsburg to nurse the victims of war, while the 60 stranded student boarders found safety and shelter in the impenetrable enclosure of the monastery and classes for the girls continued with the Visitation Sisters.

In the 1840s and 1850s, a flurry of church building activity transformed Frederick, each congregation seeking to outdo the others in the stylishness and height of its steeple. Among the dozen spires is Trinity Chapel’s 1807 colonial steeple, the oldest of the famed “clustered spires of Frederick,” which rests atop the original stone tower of the fourth house of worship, built in 1763. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1746, was the first church in Frederick County and an American pioneer of the Sunday school movement. It also served as a hospital following the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church was established in 1704 in one of the richest tobacco-producing regions in Colonial Maryland. It was a cultural hub from its construction through the American Revolution, Civil War, and Reconstruction. The church holds the first recorded public art commission in the American colonies, The Last Supper by Gustavus Hesselius, commissioned in October 1721. It was the first significant American painting to depict a scene, whereas most previous painting in the new world had been portraits.

Visit the historic Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House, a large Federal-style Quaker Meeting House built in 1817. Several figures of national importance were associated with the site, including the first President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; the inventor of an early refrigerator and an innovational deep plow; the designer of the first iron hull steamboat; a surveyor of the Louisiana Purchase; the authoress of a well-used mid-19th century cookbook; and the designer of seals used by the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. They all shared a common Quaker heritage, as well as family ties with three "founding" families of the Meeting and the Sandy Spring area of Montgomery County, the Brookes, the Thomas family, and the Snowdens.

Central Maryland

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Baltimore was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the U.S. and a symbol of the country’s newfound religious freedom. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America's first professionally trained architect and Thomas Jefferson's Architect of the U.S. Capitol, the Basilica was constructed between 1806 and 1821 under the guidance of the first American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, John Carroll.

Born Elizabeth Clarisse Lange in what is now the Republic of Haiti, she fled the island when a revolution occurred in the late 1800’s and settled in Baltimore with other Catholic, French-speaking refugees. She began to educate “children of color” in her own home in Baltimore so that they could read the Bible, an act which was illegal at the time. In 1828 Elizabeth and her friend Maria Balas co-founded St. Francis Academy, the oldest continuously operated school for black Catholic children in the United States and on July 2, 1829 she and three other black women pronounced vows to become America’s first religious order of women of African descent. Elizabeth took the name Mary and served as the mother superior of the Oblate Sisters of Mount Providence from 1829 to 1832, and again from 1835 to 1841.

St. Mary's Spiritual Center & Historic Site on Paca Street in Baltimore is home to two National Historic buildings, the Mother Seton House and the Historic Seminary Chapel. Bishop John Carroll invited the Society of St. Sulpice in France to come to the city to found the nation's first Roman Catholic Seminary. His invitation was accepted 1791. In 1808, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, a young widow with five children spent a year in Baltimore. During that year, she established a Catholic boarding school for girls and took her first vows in the seminary chapel. In June 1809, Mother Seton moved her young community to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she died in 1821. For her lasting educational and spiritual work, Pope Paul VI canonized her as America’s first native-born citizen to become a saint on September 14, 1975, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.

Mt. De Sales Academy in Catonsville has a rich Catholic history dating back to 1852.  Historically, it is both a landmark and a religious place of education, worship and in its day – sanctuary. The first Catholic institution in Baltimore County to offer education to young women of all denominations, Mount de Sales’ earliest students represented nearly all states, as well as several European and Latin American countries. The building was added to the Maryland Historic Register in 1986, and traces of the original grilles, turnstiles, cloister garden, and convent sleeping quarters are still very much in evidence around the school today.

Now a part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland at the Herbert Bearman campus, the Greek-Revival style Lloyd Street Synagogue was built in 1845 by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the first synagogue erected in Maryland, and is now the third-oldest standing synagogue in the U.S. For more than a century, the building was used as a house of worship, study, and assembly by three different congregations: Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (1845-1889), St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (1889-1905), one of the first Lithuanian “ethnic” parishes in the United States, and Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh (1905-1963), one of the leading Orthodox congregations of the East European immigrant community.

Old Town Friends' Meeting House, also known as Aisquith Street Meeting or Baltimore Meeting, is a historic Quaker meeting house located in Baltimore and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It is a two-story brick building which has undergone several alterations over the years. The Meetinghouse is the oldest religious building in the city, constructed in 1781 by contractor George Mathews.

The First Unitarian Church in Baltimore was the first building erected for Unitarians in the U.S. and is the oldest building continuously used by a Unitarian congregation. Dedicated on October 19, 1818, the church features a domed cube with a stucco exterior.

The current capital of Maryland was originally called "Providence" when settled by the Puritans in 1649. When Royal Governor Sir Francis Nicholson moved the capital there in 1694 from St. Mary's City, the small seaport received its present name Annapolis. Sir Francis designed a city worthy of Queen Anne in a baroque plan similar to the magnificent capitals of Europe. He drew circles with radiating streets to create focal points and give importance to certain structures. Within one circle is St Anne's, the Episcopal Church, regarded as the spiritual center of the city.

In 1709, an English teenager and King George loyalist named Henry Sater sailed to America and purchased land in today’s Lutherville, called Chestnut Ridge. He was a tobacco farmer, slave-owner, and a Baptist. Two years into his second marriage to Dorcas Towson (daughter of William Towson, after whom the town of Towson is named), Sater built and founded the first Baptist church in Maryland in 1742, using bricks brought over from England as ships ballast. Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church preserves the original name of Sater’s Church.

Mt. Gilboa A.M.E. Church is the oldest active African-American church in Baltimore County and was built in 1859 by free black people as the replacement of an earlier log chapel. Many believe that Benjamin Banneker, often referred to as the "First African American Man of Science" worshiped in the site’s log chapel. Largely self-taught, Banneker was a scientist, surveyor, almanac author and farmer who invented America’s first fully-functional clock. He regularly corresponded with President Thomas Jefferson.

Old Brick is the oldest church building still in use in Howard County, and commemorates the worshiping community’s presence in this location since 1711. It is one of the first Episcopal churches built in Maryland after the Revolutionary War. In contrast to its small size and extreme simplicity, the most significant detail is the interior gallery around three sides, a feature generally found only in larger and more formal churches of the Colonial period.

The Shrine of St. Anthony, located within the St. Joseph Cupertino Friary in Ellicott City, honors St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of the lost. The chapel, shrine and manor house are located on a 310-acre portion of an original 10,000-acre land grant once owned by Charles Carroll of Carrolltown, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Built in 1930, the shrine was designed as a miniature Sacro Convento of Assisi, the friary in Italy where St. Francis is buried.

The Churchville Presbyterian Church was placed on the National Historic Register of places for its significant architecture—both the 1820 original brick structure and the 1870 bell tower and interior woodwork additions which were the work of J. Crawford Neilson, an important Baltimore architect, and William Shuck, a prominent local craftsman. The church’s beginnings date to the earliest 1738 Presbyterian congregation in Harford County.

Pipe Creek Friends Meetinghouse in Union Bridge was founded by immigrants from Ireland in 1771 and completed the next year. It has included among its members many of the early and prominent families of the surrounding communities, including William Farquar, known for his peace-making ability with the Indians, and a great-great-grandfather of President Herbert Hoover. The plain, 1½ -story brick structure reflects the conservatism of the Quaker sect and is a fine example of the mid-Atlantic folk style.

Southern Maryland

Christ Church, King and Queen Parish is one of the two original colonial parishes in the area now known as St. Mary’s County and has served for more than 300 years. The other is Christ Episcopal Church, Chaptico, one of the oldest churches in continual use in America. Its congregation dates from 1640, only six years after the landings of the Ark and the Dove at St. Clement’s Island.

After crossing into Charles County, visitors will encounter the home of Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and St. Ignatius Church, the oldest continually operating Catholic church in Maryland, which houses relics from the Ark and Dove. For more than 150 years, St. Thomas Manor at St. Ignatius was the residence of Superiors of the Maryland Mission, where many missionaries have lived and worked, including John Carroll, the first Bishop of the United States.

Christ Church is significant both historically—as the mother Episcopal Church of Calvert County and its oldest continually worshipping congregation, and architecturally—as a fine country church that retains its colonial character. The architectural significance derives from its evolution from the 18th century to the present, including its 18th-century ecclesiastical tidewater architecture, 19th-century Gothic Revival and domestic architecture details, and mid-20th-century stained glass windows.

Eastern Shore

The Eastern Shore was settled by Protestants, chiefly Methodist. In 1856, the Oxford Methodists built the white frame St Paul’s Church with elements of Greek Revival styling. Later, Gothic Revival influences were added to the arched lancet windows, Victorian sawn work on the wooden spire, and the pointed-arch entrance doors. The church closed in 1977 and a full renovation and restoration started in 2008.

The original Scott’s United Methodist Church structure, dating back to the 17th century, belonged to the Quakers of the Trappe area. In 1867, they joined the Friends Meeting in Easton and turned the building over to the African-American community of Trappe. Displayed in the building are items describing the church’s rich history, including information about Nathaniel “Nace” Hopkins, one of the founders of the church, Civil War veteran, leader in Trappe’s black community and builder of the town’s first black school. Each year “Nace’s Day” is observed in the Trappe community to celebrate the emancipation of Maryland’s slaves.

Created as a split from the Diocese of Maryland in 1868, the Episcopal Diocese of Easton comprises the nine counties that make up the Eastern Shore, including 39 worshiping communities of nearly 10,000 members, served by 70 clergy. Its largest cities are Salisbury, Ocean City, and Easton, the centrally located city from which the diocese takes its name and where Trinity Cathedral, the bishop's seat, is located. Both Camp Wright and Christ Episcopal Church of Kent Island, the oldest Christian congregation in Maryland, are part of the diocese located in Stevensville. Among the other churches are Centerville’s St. Paul's Episcopal, Chestertown’s Emmanuel Episcopal and North East’s St. Mary Anne’s Episcopal church.

In 1683 the Reverend Francis Makemie, a 25-year-old recently ordained minister arrived from Ireland in Somerset County. By 1706, Makemie and his followers constructed the first Presbyterian Church in America in Rehoboth. Under his leadership, this church, and those at Princess Anne, and were organized.

Located in Talbot County, Third Haven Friends Meeting House has occupied the same property since 1682. The original meeting house was completed and first put to use in 1684. The structure has been modified, and other buildings added over the years, but the original meetinghouse is still in active use and remains the focal point of the property. It is the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States.
St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church, an 1879 frame Gothic building, and the Joshua Thomas Chapel, an 1850 Greek revival frame structure, and the surrounding cemetery with 19th and 20th century burials and markers represent the oldest site in Somerset County in continuous use for Methodist meetings. In September 1814, Joshua Thomas, “Parson of the Islands,” preached to the British troops sailing up the Chesapeake Bay and predicted their defeat at Baltimore.

About Maryland Tourism
The Maryland Office of Tourism is an agency of the Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts within the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. Visitors to the state spent more than $15.4 billion on travel-related expenses in 2013. During 2013, the Maryland tourism industry also generated $2.1 billion in state and local taxes, and provided 138,682 jobs for Maryland residents.