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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 13: Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church

Catholicism came to Maryland on March 25, 1634, the Feast of the Annunciation, with the arrival of "the Ark and the Dove" bearing over two hundred families and the celebration of the first Mass said within the limits of the state.

Of this great event the eminent American historian George Ban-croft, no great friend of Catholicism, says: "Lord Baltimore was the first in the history of the Christian world to seek for religious security and peace by the practice of justice and not by the exercise of power; and at the humble village, which bore the name of St. Mary's, religious liberty obtained a home, the only home in the wide world. Under the mild institutions and munificence of Baltimore, the dreary wilderness soon bloomed with the swarming life and activity of prosperous settlements: the Roman Catholics, who were oppressed by the laws of England, were sure to find a peaceful asylum in the quiet harbor of the Chesapeake, and there too, Protestants were sheltered against Protestant intolerance Its history is the history of benevolence, gratitude, and toleration."

Half a century later, however, dissensions were brewing which culminated eventually in 1692 when the Third General Assembly of Maryland made the Episcopal Church the established religion of the colony, disfranchising the Roman Catholic and refusing him the legal right of public worship. While severe penalties were meted out to priests taken in the practice of their religion, there seems to have been a tacit understanding allowing Catholics the practice of their religious exercises at home. Hence arose the custom of erecting chapels under the roofs of Catholic dwellings where Mass might be performed and the Sacraments administered. Speaking of the activity of the Puritans which began in Maryland before 1655 Ban-croft says: "The Puritans, ever the friends of popular liberty, hostile to monarchy . . . . had neither the gratitude to respect the rights

of the government, by which they had been received and fostered, nor magnanimity to continue the toleration, to which alone they were indebted for their residence in the colony."

With the disfranchisement of the Catholics in 1692 and the removal of the seat of government from St. Mary's to Annapolis, many Catholics began to migrate. Some went West; some to Kentucky; but one group pushed into the interior of their own state to the Catoctin spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains, calling the area St. Mary's Mount. The leader of this group was William Elder, who moved hither from St. Mary's County about 1728. With the advent of Elder, grandfather of William Elder, later Archbishop of Cincinnati, began the history of Catholicism in this area.

Elder is reported to have settled first at Zentz's Mill, about three miles south of Mount St. Mary's College, and there probably the first Mass in this neighborhood was celebrated by some itinerant missionary. Later, after the death of his first wife, Elder settled on a farm near Clairvaux, where he built a more permanent home with a "house chapel" attached which stood until 1862. This spot where the house altar once stood is marked by a simple stone surmounted by a cross bearing this inscription: "Here was erected by William Elder, Sr. the first altar to the Living God in what is known as Mt. St. Mary's, Emmitsburg and Mechanicstown congregations about the year 1745." This stone was erected 103 years after his death. Another witness to this fact is a boatmen's shell, which is part of the Mount St. Mary's collection of antiquities, and bears these words: "Used in calling the faithful to Mass at the home of William Elder about 1734."

About 1741 a mission was established at Conewago by the German Jesuit Fr. William Wapeler and it is highly probable that the congregation in Maryland received some attention at his hands. Other Jesuits, Fr. Neagle and Fr. Manners, probably attended the congregation until after 1763.

After the French and Indian War there was a great influx of German and Irish Catholics along the Monocacy Valley. To meet the spiritual needs of the faithful in Frederick and its vicinity, the Rev. John Williams built a chapel there. At this time came also the cessation of active religious persecution. Others who probably attended the congregations in this neighborhood were Fr. George Hunter, S.J., until 1773, and Frs. Framback (1773-79) and Walton (1779-94).

In 1794 Fr. John Dubois, founder of Mount St. Mary's College, was appointed to the Frederick area by Bishop John Carroll. He had under his charge settlements in Emmitsburg and Hagerstown, Montgomery and Washington Counties, and Martinsburg and Winchester. Indeed, Frs. Dubois and Baldin were the only two priests covering the area from Baltimore to St. Louis. We know that Fr. Dubois visited Emmitsburg once a month and celebrated Mass alternately at the village and at the base of the mountain. There were probably visits from Fr. Matthew Ryan who was said to be the first to have celebrated Mass in Emmitsburg. Perhaps also the famous Russian prince, Fr. Demetrius Gallitzin, residing at Taneytown for an interval, attended the people of the neighborhood. With the foundation of the College in 1808, Catholics in the neighborhood were probably much better off than others in the state with the exception of those in Baltimore itself.

In 1819, a young man named John Brien was summoned from Ireland to supervise the Catoctin Iron Works. His son, Robert Cole-man Brien, married a Catholic, Elizabeth Tiernen, who undertook in 1840 to construct a church at Catoctin. Her death terminated the work on the building, which since has been neglected, and today, in ivy covered dilapidation, lends an antique splendor to Auburn, the old McPherson estate. Subsequently, plans were drawn up for building a church at Mount St. Mary's for the communities of Mechanicstown and Emmitsburg.

In March 1828, Fr. Simon Brute, Dubois' associate at Mount St. Mary's, writing of the future of the Mount, suggested that as it grew the priests of the College might take care of the charges at Emmitsburg, Mount St. Mary's, Mechanicstown and Catoctin. Early Catholic directories indicate that the priests of the College carried on all the pastoral duties of the neighborhood during the first fifty years of the 19th. century.

Letters extant in the Mount St. Mary's College archives between Fr. William McCloskey, a member of the College faculty and Bishop of Louisville, indicate that as early as 1856, Fr. McCloskey was at-tempting to purchase land in Thurmont for the erection of a church. Writing to Charles Hoffman, a Frederick attorney, in October 1856, Fr. McCloskey noted that the legal title for the deed should include

"The Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kenrick, Archbishop of Baltimore, and his successors in the Archiepiscopal See of Baltimore."

In a letter of January 28, 1857, Fr. McCloskey comments about the difficulty arising out of an offer of a certain Fr. Need to give a spot on "a lot of some twenty acres lying near, perhaps within, the limits of the town." However, he later discovered that there would be difficulty in getting a clear title to the land because the spot on which he wished to locate the church was disputed. Although Fr. McCloskey felt the Need title was clear, because he was acting for the Archbishop, he felt that it must be recorded. In a map drawn in this letter he indicated that the land was on the road leading out of Thurmont toward Graceham and Creagerstown. The section in dispute cut across the church property at a point where Fr. McCloskey intended to build his church. It was so shaped that it barred the church property from the road.

Evidently between February 20, 1857 and March 12, 1857, Fr. McCloskey must have decided against the risk of securing the original site. On the latter date he writes Hoffman calling attention to a clipping from the Frederick Citizen of March 6, 1857, to the effect that a purchase had been made for the Church and says "They have made us pay high for it, but as the site is desirable, if the title is good, I do not regret the price." He again requests Hoffman to examine the records so that there will be no later problems. His description of the purchased land follows: "The lot lies on the road leading from the Furnace, thro' Mechanicstown, on the way to the College, and adjoins the Methodist Church. I sup-pose there will be no difficulty in ascertaining whatever check may be necessary to know about its size, as you can see about an acre and a half."

In a letter of April 8, 1857, Fr. McCloskey indicated that the property had been bought from a Mr. Walter and his wife Mary R. Walter and suggests that the deed be done in duplicate and that the money will be forthcoming whenever necessary.

By August 31, 1857, the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was under construction. The stone used in this beautiful little church was quarried from the Catoctin Mountains. Builders of the Church were Cyrus Maser assisted by Daniel Eighenbrode and others not named.

Two interesting items from the Catholic Mirror of September 5, 1857 and July 9, 1859, record the ceremonies of the cornerstone laying and the dedication of the Church. Because of their historic importance, the account of these ceremonies is presented here just as they appeared in the Catholic Mirror:

"The cornerstone of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at Mechanicstown five miles from Mount St. Mary's College, was blessed according to ritual of the Church on Sunday last, the 30th. of August. The Rev. Dr. McCaffrey, President of Mount St. Mary's College, officiated on the occasion, assisted by the Vice President and other Rev. Professors of the College. The Public School House of Mechanicstown was kindly placed for the occasion at the disposal of the Rev. gentlemen, and about four o'clock P.M., the President wearing the alb, stole, and cope, preceded by the other clergymen, and a procession, partly of the students of the College and partly of the Seminarians advanced from the school house to the site of the Church, in a lot of an acre and a quarter purchased for the purpose and presenting the very best position in the town.

"A concourse of at least a thousand persons assembled from all the neighborhood villages and from the farm houses and dwellings that dot the mountains side or lie scattered in the valleys that wind among its hills, witnessed with marked attention and respect the imposing ceremonies, the ecclesiastical procession, the lighted tapers and the sacred symbol of redemption borne publicly before the Priests and Levites to the spot marked for the future offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the New Law.

"After the blessing of the cornerstone, Dr. McCaffrey ad-dressed the assembly, the largest ever known in Mechanicstown, for over an hour and a half, on the subject of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, proving its divine origin, its existence in the Christian Church from the beginning, its absolute necessity to fulfill the prophecies and figures of the Old Testament, its sanction in the New, and the absurdity of holding that to be a true church and a divine religion, which has no altar, no priest, no victim . . . . in a word, no divinely instituted sacrifice.

"The respectful attention paid by all to his eloquent argument, and the kindly feeling manifested by hundreds of Protestants, speak well for the audience and the neighborhood. The handsome collection taken up on the occasion is a further proof of their liberality. The good people of Mechanicstown will long remember the blessing of the cornerstone of the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and may fondly look forward to the still happier day of its dedication."

"On Sunday, June 5, the new church at Mechanicstown, Frederick County, was dedicated to the service of God under the patronage of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Early in the morning crowds were seen coming by different roads towards the scene of the interesting ceremony. The Clergy and Seminarians of Mt. St. Mary's College assembled in the large hall of the town academy, where a procession was formed, and passing through the main street of the village approached the new temple. The dedication was performed by Rev. J. McCaffrey, D.D., president of Mt. St. Mary's. After the ceremony the same distinguished Divine preached in the open air on the "Apostolicity of the Church." Solemn Mass was then celebrated by the Rev. H. McMurdie. The assemblage during the service in and around the Church was very great for so retired a spot, the number present being estimated at nearly three thousand. The Church itself is a beautiful stone building of Gothic style, and is a genuine evidence of the taste and piety of the people for whose benefit and by whose liberality it has been erected. The dimensions of the sacred edifice are sixty-five feet by thirty. The Rev. John Hickey, Jr., attached to the College, is the present pastor and officiates there every Sunday. Although it is but a few miles from the Mountain Church, much good is anticipated to the surrounding faithful from the increased facilities it affords for practising their religious duties."

Fr. McCaffrey, one of the greatest of Mount St. Mary's presidents, three times refused an episcopal see and was a famed theologian, preacher and author. In 1870 he was the Rural Dean of the area and in this capacity undoubtedly kept an eye on the development of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish which was still attended from the College.

It might be well to point out here that even before the completion of the Church, Fr. McCloskey began the mission by offering the Holy Sacrifice on November 16, 1856, at the house of John Wilhide, where on Christmas Day, 1856, he said Mass twice, at six and nine o'clock.

On Easter Sunday, previous to the corner-stone ceremony, Mass had been said at the house of Stanislaus Walters near Graceham. There were about 120 Catholics in the area at this time.

Fr. George Flaut, a native of Adams County and a member of the Mount St. Mary's faculty, is credited with having built the altar for the church. Fr. Flaut had been a carpenter in the employ of the College, had become a priest there, and assisted in the area. Fr. McCloskey called him the "saint of the mountain" and he was for twelve years in charge of the congregation about the College and like St. Paul a model for his flock. He built the altar at the Mountain Church and also worked on a school which he founded in 1847 for the children of the neighborhood.

There is a record also that about 1840 John Brien, a Catholic owner of the Catoctin Iron Works, built a stone edifice there which still stands in ruins. He designed it for a church, but it never reached dedication or was Mass said in it as Brien died before carrying out the project. There were ten Catholic families at Catoctin at the time and about twenty-five in 1863. By 1908 only two such families remained in the Furnace locality.

Undoubtedly Fr. McCloskey was assisted in his work at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel by other priests of the Mountain including Fr. Henry McMurdie, Fr. John O'Brien, Fr. John Byrne, and Fr. John McCloskey, brother of the future bishop, and Fr. William Hill, who paid special attention to the local parish.

On December 18, 1859, Fr. William McCloskey was appointed first rector of the North American College in Rome and in this very same month, Fr. John Koch took charge of the parish. He and Fr. John Byrne gave a week's mission and had fifty Communions. In November 1860, Fr. John McCloskey took charge.

From "The Story of the Mountain" we learn that on Sunday, September 14, 1862, the Battle of South Mountain, which lasted all day, could be plainly heard in Mechanicstown. Another interesting note is that one or two raids of Confederate Cavalry were made on the College or eastern side of the Catoctin range, in October 1862. It was during one of the raids that Fr. John McCloskey, an excellent horseman, and Vice President of the College, rode side by side with General J. E. B. Stuart. Fr. McCloskey was also procurator of the College during the Civil War period, and in November, 1883 he became President of the College.

Until 1881 Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was attended by the priests from the College. The first resident pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmet Church was Fr. John Conway, a widower who had been in the tea and coffee business near the Belair Market. After the death of his wife, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1879. After his appointment as pastor of Mechanicstown, he lived at the southern end of the community, a distance of half-a-mile from the church, as there was no rectory. Tradition has it that his niece served as his housekeeper and that she was a bad cook. Fr. Conway remained at the parish from 1881 until 1886 when he was transferred to St. Augustine's Parish, Elkridge Landing, Maryland. He died as pastor of that place on October 26, 1893, at the age of 60 and is buried in Bonnie Brae Cemetery.

He was succeeded by Fr. Eugene S. Gwynne, 1886-1889, who lived in the same quarters until he eventually transferred his residence to Libertytown and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel became a mission station of that charge. Fr. Gwynne died on September 18, 1826.

Fr. William H. Reaney, 1889-1891, succeeded Fr. Gwynne as pastor. It might be well to point out that after leaving Thurmont in 1891, Fr. Reaney became one of the best known and best loved priests in the nation. His father had been a high ranking naval officer who was later placed in charge of the nation's lighthouses. After his pastorate at Libertytown, he became one of the first two Navy chaplains. He attained wide attention by standing up against the famous prize fighter, Tom Sharkey, in an exhibition bout put on by the enlisted Navy personnel. He remained a Navy chaplain until his death.

Fr. Reaney was succeeded by Fr. Thomas J. Monteverde from 1893-1894 and was followed by Fr. John P. White, who had been a member of the Mill Hill Missionary Fathers founded by Cardinal Vaughan.

Fr. Don Luigi Sartori, pastor from 1898-1900, filled many pastorates in the archdiocese, notably those in Bradshaw and Midland.

In 1900 Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was attended from St. Anthony's Shrine parish near Mount St. Mary's College with Fr. John B. Manley serving from 1900 to 1903, Fr. Thomas Lyons from 1903 to 1905 and Fr. George Tragesser from 1905 to 1918.

On December 28, 1918, Fr. Thomas J. Wheeler was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Cardinal Gibbons, anxious to give the patients at the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Sabillasville the comfort and consolations of the sacraments, appointed Fr. Wheeler as resident pastor. The Sabillasville duties are still a part of the pastoral obligations of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Fr. Wheeler seems to have taken up his duties in Thurmont on January 6, 1919. During Fr. Wheeler's pastorate the rectory was purchased in 1920. He was succeeded as pastor by Fr. William Neligan who remained here until 1929.

During Fr. Wheeler's pastorate there was a proposal to erect a new church at Blue Ridge Summit to care for the people in that area and particularly the summer residents.

In 1929 Fr. Joseph L. Curran became pastor and under him the 75th. anniversary of the founding was celebrated on May 15, 1932. More than 3,000 persons attended the jubilee mass which was celebrated on the parish lawn by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Bernard J. Bradley, president of Mount St. Mary's with Bishop John M. McNamara, auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, presiding. Msgr. John Tierney of the Mount St. Mary's faculty preached an eloquent sermon.

In preparation for the jubilee the church was beautifully re-frescoed and other improvements made, the funds being in the main supplied by the clerical members of the Mount St. Mary's faculty in keeping with the precedent associated with the founding of the parish.

As a part of his duties Fr. Curran spent two days of each week visiting the Catholic patients at the Sanatorium. This work was supported, as it is now, by the people of the Thurmont parish.

Fr. Walter L. Read became pastor in 1933 and served the church until 1937. Further improvements were made to the parish during Fr. Read's pastorate. A vestibule with stone from the original quarry was built and the grounds improved by a stone wall along the front on Church Street. Fr. Read was also instrumental in se-curing rights for the ground now used as a parking area from the Western Maryland Railway Company. The railroad leased the land to the Church for a nominal annual sum beginning on November 6, 1936.

Fr. Edward H. Roach became pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1937 and remained in charge until 1942. In 1940, Fr. Roach added stained glass windows designed and installed by the Miller Art Glass Company of Baltimore, Maryland. The windows depict the various phases of the life of Our Lord from His boyhood in the carpenter shop to His agony in the garden. The window over the main altar portrays Our Lady of Mt. Carmel with the Christ Child

on her lap. In the choir loft at the rear of the church the windows represents St. Cecilia, patroness of music. Fr. Roach also had the ceiling beams refinished in natural wood color and new lighting fixtures of Gothic design installed. During his pastorate, in addition to the charge at Sabillasville, care of Catholics attending the summer camp of the Maryland League for Crippled Children fell on the Thurmont pastor.

Fr. James C. Murphy succeeded Fr. Roach as pastor in 1942 and remained until 1943, at which time Fr. Roger K. Wooden became pastorate. During his pastorate which was concluded in 1949, Fr. Wooden made many improvements to the sacristy, the vestibule and the church grounds.

Fr. John J. McShane became pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in March of 1949 and remained until June 1950. Under Fr. Mc-Shane in 1950, Camp Ritchie was added to the pastoral duties. It remained under the direction of the Thurmont pastor until 1952.

Fr. McShane was followed by Fr. Vincent J. Tomalski, under whose direction the edifice was pointed and waterproofed. Fr. John J. Hart, began his duties in Thurmont in 1954. Under his direction the interior of the Church was completely renovated, a new roof was added to the sacristy, and the whole exterior of the Church was repainted.

In 1961, Fr. Hart was succeeded by Fr. Edward V. Echle, who became pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in November of that year. Under the able leadership of Fr. Echle, the Church has grown considerably and today boasts a membership of 590. Sunday masses have also been increased in number to accommodate the large membership. At present there are four masses each Sunday which speaks well of Fr. Echle and his congregation. He is well liked in the community and his sincere and friendly manner has won for him the respect and admiration which he so justly deserves.

Chapter Index | Chapter 14: St. John's Lutheran Church

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