By Deborah Holly
The Holy Father has proclaimed that “The Year of Faith” will begin this month. Pope Benedict XVI states, “This will be a good opportunity to usher the whole church into a time of particular reflection and rediscovery of faith.”
The Office of African American Catholic Ministries seized this opportunity to transform its creative “Keep On Teaching” forum for catechists this year.
One might teach “the faith,” but ultimately faith is a gift one experiences. So Therese Wilson Favors and her team from the office moved Keep On Teaching “from our traditional catechetical forum into a catechetical pilgrimage.” Catechists became pilgrims to Southern Maryland, where Catholics brought the faith to the New World, our people endured plantation slavery and where we would walk in the paths of our ancestors.
Now pilgrims, we traveled to St. Mary’s County. We were honored with the presence of noted historian and elder of historic St. Francis Xavier Church, Agnes Kane Callum, griot of African-American Maryland history. Her stories are records of Southern Maryland, where she has traced family members from the slave plantation we visited to the places and work of her ancestors to this present day. The pilgrims also included eight “Squires,” young men from St. Francis Xavier’s New Horizons Men’s Group.
Our first stop was St. Francis Xavier Church in Leonardtown. Established in 1640, it is the oldest Catholic church from the original 13 colonies. The Squires carried a crucifix and a carved African statue to lead us inside for prayerful reflection. We sat on the narrow bench seats in enclosed pews. In this point in our history, Black and White still worshipped together. The small-brick colonial church, with a wooden-beamed ceiling and bright blue door-framed painting of the priest, St. Francis Xavier, above the small altar, is still open for Mass today.
We next journeyed to St. Clement’s Island, the place where the Ark and Dove brought the first settlers to the colony of Maryland and the first Catholic Mass was celebrated in the 13 English-speaking colonies by Jesuit Father Andrew White. Among the colonists were three men of color: indentured servants John Price, Francisco and Matthias de Sousa, who built the altar and later became a voting member of the Maryland Assembly.
We had planned to take water taxis to the actual island, but the choppy water allowed only one trip of brave pilgrims to cross from Colton’s Point to the site. As the small taxi bobbed and weaved among the white caps, I thought of the faith and strength of the slaves who survived the Middle Passage.
Next was Sotterley’s Plantation, the place Agnes Kane Callum traced her forbearers and corrected some of its history. Once a plantation of hundreds of acres, we witnessed the stark reality of a slave cabin. It was a four-walled, dirt-floor wooden shack no bigger than an apartment kitchen, with no place to keep or prepare food, that slept 18 slaves. What faith sustained them! Those who made the walk down the steep hill from the beautifully appointed plantation house to the cabin, and could bring themselves to go inside, stood in prayer below a ceiling one could easily touch with outstretched hands. It was a moving experience.
Our final stop was St. Peter Claver in Ridge, where the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits once served. In the hall where we enjoyed dinner hung a photograph of the original church built by African-American Catholics. The cemetery headstones held the surnames of many ancestors of our Baltimore parishes.
Journey complete, we now have the charge to plan similar experiences for our parishes, and also to record personal journeys of faith to share. We have a special year in which to do it.
Deborah Holly is a parishioner of St. Peter Claver, Baltimore.
Copyright (c) Oct. 4, 2012 CatholicReview.org