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The birth of American Catholicism

First slide

The Catholic community in Clinton, Md., will celebrate the first Catholic baptism of Native Americans in the original 13 Colonies July 5. It took place 375 years ago in 1640 when Jesuit Father Andrew White baptized the Tayac (emperor) of the Piscataway Indians. A mural by a Catholic artist from Virginia, Henry Wingate, records the moment on the wall above the vestibule of St. Mary Church in Clinton, Md.

The painting in oil on canvas was glued to a panel and then hoisted into place. "We had to cut into a wall in my studio to get it out," Wingate recalls. When it was unveiled on Easter Sunday 2014, three children were baptized under it in the new baptismal font - including two direct descendants of the Tayac who received the faith in 1640.

The mural depicts Father White, then 61 years old, baptizing the Tayac, Kittamaquund. Behind Kittamaquund stands his chief aide, Mosorcoques, holding the symbols of the Tayac authority, along with his young son. Both were baptized that day, along with Kittamaquund's wife, who took the Christian name Mary.

A key figure for the early Catholic history of both Maryland and Virginia is the 6-year-old daughter of the couple, peeking around her mother's skirts in the picture. She received the sacrament a year later, when the Tayac gave her to be raised by Governor Leonard Calvert and his sister-in-law, Margaret Brent, so that she could communicate between the two cultures. Later still, this child, also named Mary, married Giles Brent. The couple eventually moved to Virginia and became the founding family of Catholicism in this colony.

Heroic Jesuit missionaries

A detailed account of the ceremony was included in The Jesuit Relations, an annual report from Jesuit missionaries to their superiors in Rome. Since no portraits of Father White survive, for costume details Wingate drew upon portrayals of the canonized St. Isaac Jogues, martyred as a missionary to the Iroquois in northern New York in 1646.

One of the two priests on the right side of the mural, Father John Altham, died of yellow fever a few months after the baptism, one of the many heroic Jesuits who lost their lives in the hardship of the Colonies. (The average life expectancy after arriving in the colony was 10 years).

Father White made history by insisting on evangelizing the Indians instead of limiting his ministry to the colonists. Five years after the English Catholics first landed in Maryland in 1634 aboard The Ark and Dove, Father White moved 120 miles north of St. Mary's City to Piscataway village. His patient, personal witness eventually bore fruit. In the words of St. Mary's of Piscataway Director of Religious Education Bill Keimig, "It was a textbook example of Catholic inculturation done the right way."

In 1641, Father White founded St. Thomas Manor in Port Tobacco, Md., the oldest Jesuit residence continuously in use by the order in North America.

Father White was captured in 1645 by Protestant partisans, taken back to England in chains, and put on trial for his life on the absurd charge that he had illegally entered the country where Catholic priests were banned. Although he was set free, Father White was not allowed to go back to Maryland due to his age. He did write a catechism that is the only example of the Algonquin language to come down in written form.

Catholic struggles in Maryland

At the mural's right edge stands the colonial governor, Leonard Calvert, a devout Catholic who helped carry the cross in the procession. In the background the artist depicts the bark wall chapel Father White built for the occasion.

English persecution of Catholics took its toll. Puritans attacked the colony at St. Mary's City and burned it down. The Jesuit priests were either sent back to England or to Virginia, where two of them soon died of exposure.

Lord Calvert regained his colony in 1649 and wrote the Maryland Toleration Act, the first law on religious tolerance in British North America. Portions of the act are echoed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrining religious freedom in American law.

The Maryland colony was lost to Protestant control, and by 1689, deep persecution of Catholics took hold and continued until 1776, when Maryland's legislature finally removed the anti-Catholic laws.

Wingate - admired in the Arlington Diocese for his four scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist for the parish church in Front Royal - worked closely with members of the Piscataway tribe to ensure that the final work accurately represented 17th-century accounts of the event and its participants.

"They even lent me artifacts from their tribal collections," he said. Two Piscataway tribe members volunteered as models for the Native American figures on the left side of the scene.

Hamerman, who teaches art and catechesis at Christendom Graduate School in Alexandria, can be reached at norahamerman@aol.com.

If you go

A celebration of the 375th anniversary of the founding of the Piscataway Catholic community will be held July 5 at St. Mary's of Piscataway Church, 13401 Piscataway Rd., Clinton, Md., from noon to 5 p.m., beginning with Mass celebrated by Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Go to saintmaryspiscataway.net.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015