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Liberty, equality and fraternity

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SAINT-OMER, France — True to the motto of France — liberty, equality and fraternity — events of 275 years ago were celebrated in a gesture of fraternity between France and the United States, specifically Maryland and Washington, D.C., last month.

A reopening of a 17th-century chapel as an art and performing center, a symposium on interreligious dialogue, and celebrations uniting a delegation from Maryland with the people of the northern French town of Saint-Omer all marked a time in history.

It was 1742, when because of the suppression of Catholic schools in the American Colonies and in England, 13-year-old Daniel Carroll was sent from his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., to a Jesuit boarding school in Saint-Omer. A few years later, his brother, John, and his cousin, Charles, made the two-month journey across the Atlantic to join him.

If the names sound familiar, they should. Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek was one of five people who signed both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. John, who became a Jesuit at age 18, was the first Catholic bishop in the United States as bishop of Baltimore, the Premier See that included all 13 colonies. He also founded Georgetown University. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and he was the first U.S. senator from Maryland.

At the College of the English Jesuits, founded in 1593, the young boys received a classical Catholic education. Just two decades later, because of the suppression of the Jesuits, the college was forced to move — first in 1762 to Bruges, Belgium, then to Liège, Belgium, in 1773, and some 20 years later to Lancashire, England, where it was renamed Stonyhurst College. It remains a coed Jesuit institution with more than 450 students.

Festivities last month recalled the impressive longevity of the French boarding school as well as the notable alumni who went on to shape the founding of the United States. Among the U.S. contingent attending the anniversary were Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, Maryland Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, three priests from the Baltimore Archdiocese and descendants of Daniel and Charles Carroll.

The Chapel of the Jesuits

The Chapel of the Jesuits, which dates back to 1615, was designed by Jesuit Jean du Blocq. Having just undergone a four-year renovation, it reopened Oct. 14 as an arts and performing center. The space, which has not been used as a chapel since the French Revolution in 1789, since has served as a horse stable, a warehouse for wartime aircraft parts and a parking garage.

It was bittersweet that many of the Maryland delegation were able to celebrate Mass, perhaps the last Mass ever in the structure, in a tiny alcove behind where the chapel’s main altar would have been. Concelebrated by Bishop Jean-Paul Jaeger, the local bishop of Arras, Boulogne and Saint-Omer, and local pastor Father Laurent Boucly; Archbishop Lori; and the three Maryland priests; the congregation consisted of a handful of descendants of the Carroll families, and two American journalists. Later that day, the chapel was inaugurated in a lengthy program of music, video and speeches.

The bright white space, harkening back to the original design, lacked the religious touches of statues or crucifix, but an exhibit of the photographs of Sacha Goldberger brought to life the students of the Carrolls’ time with 40-foot-tall portraits that hung along the side aisles. Current students and faculty from Saint-Omer’s Ribot High School, Georgetown University in Washington, and Harvard posed for the photos in fabrics of the time, standing amidst the school’s centuries-old library to create the feel of the 1700s.

In his remarks at the event, Archbishop Lori noted that he was touched to think that this was the place that was so formative in the life of his first predecessor as archbishop of Baltimore.

The Carrolls represented just a few of the young men who were sent from Maryland to receive their education at Saint-Omer, the archbishop noted. “As subjects of the British Empire in the 18th century, they were not free to practice their Catholic faith. Among the laws enacted to suppress the Catholic Church during this period was one that prohibited Catholic schools.

 “It’s for this reason that families such as the Carrolls made the sacrifice of sending their children abroad for their education, with the full knowledge that they might never see them again,” he said.

Archbishop Carroll recognized that one of the greatest needs for the Catholic community in his new diocese was schools, making one of his first major initiatives the establishment of Georgetown University, Archbishop Lori said. “When drawing up plans for the college, it is clear that he modelled the program after Saint-Omer,” he said.

The night before the chapel opening, an exhibit in the nearby Sandelin Museum, “The Jesuit School from Saint-Omer to Washington,” featured artifacts brought from Stonyhurst. Curator Jan Graffius, Stonyhurst archivist, explained that the Jesuit college was founded to educate lay people, not just those considering the priesthood. The exhibit included prayer books and missals. As Graffius pointed out, for many of the students, this was their first exposure to the Catholic Mass, so they had to be taught how to attend Mass, how to sit and how to recite the prayers.


Most of the Maryland delegation attended Mass each day beginning Oct. 13 at Mother Teresa in Morinie Church, named for both St. Teresa of Kolkata and for the region of France where it is located. In his homily, Archbishop Lori noted that American soldiers gathered in that very church a century earlier during World War I. He said the Mass was a chance to pray for France and the United States and for the difficult times in the world in which we find ourselves.

A Friendship Mass was celebrated at Saint-Omer’s Notre Dame Cathedral Oct. 15. In his homily, Archbishop Lori said, “One cannot study the founding of the United States without acknowledging the critical role played by France. During the American Revolutionary War, in 1778, France recognized and allied itself with the United States and sent its army and navy to fight on the side of this fledgling nation.”

He talked about how the Carroll family entrusted the Society of Jesus with the education and formation of their sons. “It was here at Saint-Omer that these young men, who would go on to play such important roles in the early days of my country, received a splendid education, rooted in an authentic Christian humanism, capturing the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome, while transforming it through reasoned faith of the medieval masters.”

 “His formation at Saint-Omer helped make (John Carroll) a wise and astute leader and to this day we are building on the foundations he so carefully laid. As a successor to John Carroll, I came here to Saint-Omer to express my deepest thanks,” he said.

Another stop included nearby Aire-sur-la-Lys, a smaller town that was the birthplace of Father Narcisse Martin, a French priest who served in Maryland. The archbishop celebrated Mass at the Jesuit Chapel of St. Jacques, which dates back to 1682, and is used for Mass only twice a year.

In his homily, he noted the link between “this beautiful city and Maryland, especially through Father Narcisse Martin.” He thanked the people of the town for preparing Father Martin for service. “You have given us a great gift, a holy priest, a seminary professor, a hospital chaplain and a pastor.” Father Martin served as pastor of St. Peter Church in Waldorf until his death in 1894.


An Oct. 14 roundtable on “Culture and Interreligious Dialogue: 300 Years of Tradition” was held in the Pays de Saint-Omer Library. Once the library of the Jesuit college, it now belongs to the town. Surrounded by great books, some dating back to the seventh century, shelved from floor to ceiling, the numerous speakers and faith leaders compared the current state of religious liberty with that of the Carrolls’ time.

“Religion and religious practice, while still considerable, exert less influence than formerly on how people comprehend and analyze the social issues of the day,” Archbishop Lori said. “In this time of rapid cultural change, religious freedom finds itself competing on a par or at a disadvantage with new rights and freedoms,” he said.

Franck Aubert, a Muslim from the Saint-Omer area, discussed local interreligious cooperation. Speaking in French, he said through a translator, “You can only be a true believer when you love your neighbor as yourself.” He meets several times a year with an interreligious group of faith leaders to plan “moments of commonality” including meals, social events and prayer.

“A principle of a free society is to allow people to believe in God or not,” not to suppress believers, Aubert said. “This requires an open spirit. There is no dialogue without listening to each other.”


Archbishop Lori was quick to point out that he is the spiritual successor of John Carroll as the 16th (arch)bishop of Baltimore. Descendants of Charles — Harper Wright and his wife, Janet — came from their home in England for the weekend celebrations. Wright was born in Maryland and recalled attending Mass at Doughoregan Manor Chapel in Ellicott City, Md., where Charles is buried

“Everything I’ve read about (Charles) has always been about his piety and his trying to live a good life, for the benefit, not just for himself, but for the benefit of his whole family and the community,” Wright said.

Descendants of Daniel — Charles Carroll Carter Sr., and his wife, Rosemary, and their son, Charles Carroll Carter Jr. — came from Washington, D.C.

“We’re here today to begin the link up, getting together again, between Saint-Omer and the United States, to place proper importance on the work these three people did at various times in the early history of the United States,” said Carter Sr.

With the fraternity that has developed between Saint-Omer and the United States, the timely discussion on religious liberty and the equality sought through education, it all reinforces the role one small town in France had on the Catholic founding families of the fledgling American nation.

Contributing to this article was Christopher Gunty, editor and associate publisher of the Catholic Review in Baltimore.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017