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St. Francis Xavier



On the eve of its 350th anniversary, the present day cemetery of St. Francis Xavier in Leonardtown, Maryland, reveals new details of a long-gone Jesuit chapel. Father Brian Sanderfoot, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Leonardtown, Maryland, authorized several phases of investigation at St. Francis Xavier Cemetery to map the cemetery and its many grave markers and to conduct limited archaeological testing. One of the most exciting outcomes of this work is the identification of the site of the 1662-1704 Jesuit chapel.

The story of this parish church is one in which local Roman Catholics, initially in the face of religious bigotry and political suppression, created and built a community on the banks of the Potomac River. It also is a story of the Jesuit fathers and lay brothers who sacrificed much to help the people of Newtown Neck and vicinity in this undertaking. The search for, and confirmed identification of, the chapel site will aid the community in the discovery of its roots and the celebration of its accomplishments.

St. Francis Xavier Cemetery is on the narrowest point of the Newtown Neck, a south-southwesterly oriented peninsula projecting into the Potomac River and bordered by St. Clements Bay to the west and Breton Bay to the east. Leonardtown, the St. Mary's County seat, is at the north end of Breton Bay.

Language in the chapel lot deed of title (see below) suggests that the impetus and resources for building the chapel came from local Roman Catholic families. Parishioners contributed to the construction of the chapel in 1662, and the chapel appears to have remained in use until passage of the Intolerant Act of 1704 forced its closure. The specific location of the chapel was forgotten, although it was part of the parcel that the Brettons donated for the cemetery and the cemetery has continued in use to the present.

Forasmuch as divers good and Zealous Roman Catholick Inhabitants of New Towne and St Clements Bay have unanimously agreed amongst themselves to erect and build a Church or Chappell whether they may repair on Sundays and other Holy days appointed and Corhanded by holy Church to serve Almighty God and hear divine Service, And the most Convenient place for that purpose desired and pitched upon by them all, is on a certain parcel of the Land belonging to William Bretton, Gentleman, Now Know ye that I William Bretton of Little Bretton in the County of St Mary's in the Province of Maryland gent, with the hearty good liking of my dearly beloved wife Temperance Bretton, To the greater honor and Glory of Almighty God the euer immaculat Virgin Mary and all Saints have given and doe hereby freely & forever give to the behoove of the said Roman Catholick Inhabitants and their Posterity or Successors Roman Catholicks so much land as they shall build the said Church or Chappell on which for their better Convenience they may frequent to serve Almighty God and hear divine Service as aforesaid with such other land adjoining to the said Church or Chappel convenient, Likewise for a Church yard wherein to bury their dead...

Provincial Court Proceedings, 1661. 531 .(Liber PCR/ 1026, April the 12th 1662).

The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, established a foothold in Maryland upon the colony's founding in 1634. They built a chapel at St. Mary's City as early as 1635 and had acquired three large estates over the following several decades: St. Inigoe's Manor, southeast of St. Mary's City; St. Thomas Manor (St. Ignatius Church) in central Charles County near the confluence of Port Tobacco Creek and the Potomac River; and Newtowne Manor near the head of Breton and St. Clement's bays of the Potomac River. The Jesuits established a mission on Newtowne Neck, possibly at the invitation of William Bretton in 1640. Bretton patented 750 acres on the Neck earlier that year. Religious bigotry and volatile politics in the colony and back in England forced the Jesuits to maintain a low profile, especially during the political upheavals of the late 1640s through 1650s. With the restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne and the reestablishment of Cecil, Lord Baltimore's control over Maryland, public worship of the Roman Catholic faith became possible. While the Jesuits planned replacement of their small, inconspicuous frame chapel at St. Mary's City with a substantial Baroque church (ca. 1667), William and Temperance Bretton donated 1.5 acres to the congregation at Newtowne for a chapel and cemetery (1661). Father Henry Warren purchased the Newtown Manor estate from William and Temperance Bretton six years later for 40,000 pounds of tobacco.

The Society of Jesus owned and operated Newtown Manor until 1967 when they transferred management of the cemetery and the church and manor house lots to the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. A detailed history, drawing on primary resources, has not been written for the St. Francis Xavier Church. The Special Collections division of the Georgetown University Library holds a number of documents, including ledgers and memoranda books, penned by resident Jesuits at Newtown. Censuses, newspapers, court records, and orphans court records also can be mined for information. And, of course, the extant buildings, archaeological deposits, and the cemetery monuments are potential sources of information. Cemetery inscriptions, for example, may illuminate the ebb and flow of the parish's size and wealth.


The distribution of dated stones from St. Francis Xavier cemetery suggests a peak between 1870 and 1890, followed by a decline that lasted until the 1960s. Whether these variations reflect a changing ethnicity from immigrants or fundamental changes in the religious leanings of the population can be addressed through rigorous data collection and analysis of the above-cited sources. It is also possible that some of the fluctuations stem from the economic fortunes of parishioners, affecting their ability to purchase stone monuments from Baltimore and elsewhere, leaving many graves from some decades unmarked.

Gravestones per decade Court Proceedings, 1800-2010. Click on graph for bigger view.


Clothing hooksScissor fragment

Clothing hooks (above), Scissor fragment (below)

We had two goals in mind in the archaeological exploration of the site. Our initial goal was to document the cemetery as it existed at the end of 2010. That December, Grave Concerns, under the leadership of Scott Lawrence, mapped the entire cemetery with the help of Jim Gibb, and compiled a database of all information recorded from the burial markers. This resulted in a map and a compilation of a companion database with data on the names of the deceased and their birth and death dates. Luckily, information on unmarked inhumations appear in Margaret Fresco's compendium, Marriages and Deaths in St. Mary's County, 1634-1940.i>

Our second goal was to determine the location of the 1662 chapel within the current boundaries of the cemetery. In January 2011, the field crew shovel tested the entire cemetery. Results were surprising. From the north end of the cemetery we recovered abundant brick fragments and charcoal, and single sherds of creamware, Rhenish/British Brown stoneware, pearlware, and a Western porcelain. This site, dating to the late 18th century was not the chapel in question, but raises new questions about who lived here circa 1800. However, shovel test excavations in the south end of the cemetery identified a site that dates to the middel of the 17th-century: the right chronology for the 1662 Chapel.

Site map

Shovel test grid (2010-2011) and archaeological sites. Click for larger view.

The search for the chapel proved tricky and involved several phases of invasive and geophysical survey. Nine 5 ft by 5 ft units were stratigraphically excavated by Grave Concerns and a number of volunteers in September and October 2011. Placement was informed by the January 2011 shovel tests which had encountered an oyster shell and gravel deposit and several artifacts that appeared to date to the 1650s and 1660s in the southeastern portion of the cemetery. Eleven shovel tests were excavated around the oyster shell deposit in search of artifacts (e.g., nails, window glass, brick, daub, and floor tile) and deposits (e.g., burned daub or fire-reddened earth) that would indicate a building's footprint. We hypothesize that the shell and gravel deposit represents redeposited aboriginal oyster shell midden that was mined elsewhere in the area and used to create a pavement in the 17th century.

The field crew found some interesting objects. One particularly compelling piece of evidence suggesting a Chapel site is an unglazed floor tile fragment, essentially a thin (~ one-inch thick) red brick. These are uncommon finds on Colonial sites, but they have been encountered at St. Mary's City. The clearest example is a 5 ft by 5 ft pavement covering a storage pit within the principal building at the Smith's Ordinary site at the south end of St. Mary's City's village core. Other architectural artifacts are among the most important and most common, if not the most interesting, objects recovered from the site. Brick, some daub (burned mud plaster), and nails, as well as window glass, dominate the architectural subassemblage.

Morgan Jones sherds

Morgan Jones candle-holder sherds

All of the European ceramic types date to the Colonial period and date to the second half of the 17th century; for example North Devon earthenware and Rhenish Brown stoneware sherds, and several fragments of a candlestick holder (see image to the left). If accurately identified by the staff of Historic St. Mary's City as Morgan Jones pottery, the candlestick holder dates to the 1660s and 1670s. Midlands Purple is also a 17th-century type of pottery found on 17th-century Chesapeake sites. The presence of case bottle glass and absence of free-blown wine bottle glass points to a mid-century date. Remarkably few ceramic and glass sherds have been recovered from the excavations and half of those are aboriginal pottery sherds. This pattern is not in accord with material recovered from other early Colonial sites in the region. It suggests a short-term, impoverished, or non-domestic use for the site.

We can conclude that we have a building site that was occupied as early as the 1650s and 1660s. We cannot tell when it was abandoned, although the absence of classic early 18th-century ceramic types (British Brown stoneware, White Salt-glazed stoneware, Black-glazed lead earthenware) and dates calculated from recovered tobacco pipe fragments point to a late-17th-century abandonment. Clustered architectural artifacts and crop marks (abrupt vegetation changes suggesting subsurface features such as middens and foundations) suggest that we are very close to, or within, the building. Whether or not this building is the chapel we cannot tell. The very low-density of domestic artifacts, however, suggests that this is not a typical house site.

You can download the latest report here: St. Francis Chapel Report May 2012



Floor tile sherd

Note the brick tiles that pave the interior of the new St. Francis Xavier Church (left), and the fragment of tile found at the site of what may be the 1662 Chapel (right).