When Pope John Paul II arrives in Baltimore on Sunday, he will visit a city that boasts many firsts in American Catholicism - a hub described in the early 1800s as “the Rome of the United States.”
There are older churches in the country, but Baltimore is home to the nation’s first bishop, first cathedral, first diocese and first archdiocese.
The first order of black nuns and the first black parish were founded in Baltimore. The city also is home to St. Mary’s Seminary, the nation’s first training ground for priests, which claims to have educated one of every 10 diocesan priests in the country.
And Elizabeth Ann Seton, America’s first native saint, began her religious life in Baltimore, where she founded the nation’s first parochial school.
“Maryland is the cradle of American Catholicism,” said Monsignor Robert Trisco, a Catholic historian at Catholic University. “For some years, it was a haven for people of all religions.”
There is no dispute that Baltimore was the first diocese in the country, followed closely by Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown, Ky., now known as Louisville. But other areas, such as Florida and Louisiana, had Catholic settlers long before Maryland.
In 1565, 69 years before Catholics landed in the Chesapeake Bay area, Spanish colonists built a church in St. Augustine, Fla. But Florida at that time was part of Spain.
Similarly, New Orleans claims to be home of the oldest cathedral in the United States. But when St. Louis Cathedral was built in 1789, Louisiana was a territory, not a state.
The roots of the Catholic Church were planted in Maryland in 1634, when about 200 settlers arrived from England seeking religious freedom from the rule of King Charles I.
The group celebrated its first Mass on March 25, 1634, on St. Clements Island in the Potomac River. The day remains a state holiday, known as Maryland Day.
The Calverts, a prominent Catholic family, established a colony and formed a refuge for Catholics by declaring religious tolerance for Christians. Historians say family head George Calvert was foremost a shrewd businessman and politician.
It’s not clear whether he named Maryland after the mother of Jesus or Henrietta Maria, the Catholic queen of England, said the Rev. Joseph Rossi, a historian at Loyola College in Baltimore.
The first Catholic churches were built in St. Mary’s City, the colonial capital. To this day, St. Mary’s County remains the “Mother County” of Maryland Catholicism, where the annual blessing of the fleet occurs in October off St. Clement’s Island.
Early Catholics spent a tumultuous first 100 years in Maryland as Britain claimed the colony and outlawed Catholicism. But the end of the American Revolution in 1783 marked a turning point.
Free of European control, Catholics in America were eager for a church of their own. They asked Pope Pius VI in Rome for permission to start a diocese and elect their own bishop - a bold request since bishops to this day are chosen by the Vatican. The pope granted both requests, saying Maryland could choose its diocese location and its leader - just this once.
In 1789, John Carroll was overwhelmingly elected the first bishop by the priests in the proposed diocese. Baltimore was designated his seat.
“Baltimore was the natural choice because the bulk of American Catholics were living in Maryland and southern Pennsylvania,” Rossi said.
Carroll was so intent on establishing an Americanized Catholic church that when he chose an architect to build his cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he chose William Thornton, the same man commissioned by the Congress to build the first U.S. Capitol.
And when a dissatisfied Congress fired Thornton and replaced him with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Carroll did the same.
“John Carroll felt that Americanism and Catholicism were compatible,” Rossi said. “He liked the idea of separation of church and state - an extraordinary thing for Catholics because in Europe most wanted unity.”
Until 1884, U.S. bishops traveled regularly to Baltimore to plan church policy. New bishops were consecrated in the basilica.
Most new priests were trained either at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore or Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, respectively the first and second seminaries in the country.
In the mid-1800s, as Catholics from Europe flocked to Baltimore, the first Catholic monthly magazine described the city as “the Rome of the United States,” Catholic historian Thomas W. Spaulding wrote in “The Premier See: a History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989.”
From 1870 to 1900, the U.S. Catholic Church ballooned from 4 million to 13 million members as immigrants arrived from other countries. Many headed for cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York, and Baltimore lost its premier status.
Today, New York City is considered a leading Catholic center in the United States, said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Los Angeles Archdiocese is the nation’s largest.
But Baltimore’s past remains a point of pride for many of Maryland’s 907,000 Catholics and 3,600 priests and nuns.