John Carroll and the Maryland Mission
Updated: Mar 25
The Jesuit presence in Maryland dates back to the arrival of English settlers in the area now known as St Mary’s City on the Potomac River in 1634. Among the first group of 320 settlers to arrive on 25th March 1634 was an English Jesuit, Fr Andrew White SJ, and his companions who established the Maryland Mission. Maryland was erected as a Province in its own right in 1833. Today the Province encompasses an area covering nine states on the eastern seaboard of the United States. In this blog post we look at the extraordinary life of John Carroll (1736-1815) of the Maryland Mission, who became the first bishop in the United States.
John Carroll was born in Marlborough Town, Maryland, on 8th January 1735. The Carrolls were an influential Catholic family, not only in Baltimore and Maryland but also across the fledgling United States. The Carrolls were prominent supporters of the cause for American independence. Carroll’s brother, Daniel (1730-1796), is counted among one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and was a signatory of the Articles of Confederation, the constitutional agreement of the thirteen original states of the United States. His cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), was the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the last surviving signatory, dying some 56 years after the document was signed.
John Carroll was sent to Europe at the age of 13 to St Omer’s College, the forerunner of Stonyhurst. Carroll was to remain in Europe for 26 years but much of his time on the Continent was far from peaceful. He entered the English Province of the Society of Jesus on 7th September 1753, joining the novitiate at Watten. During this period Carroll witnessed at first hand the tribulations of English Catholics and he struck up life-long friendships with several English Jesuits, including Charles Plowden SJ, and with Catholic families such as the Arundells of Wardour Castle.
Carroll’s time in Europe coincided with a most difficult period for the Society of Jesus. After being ordained as a priest in 1761 he was appointed to teach philosophy and theology at St Omer’s, which by this stage had been forced to relocate to Bruges following the decree passed by the Paris Parliament to suppress the Society of Jesus in France. Among the papers of the Maryland Mission, which are held in the Jesuits in Britain Archives, are several letters sent by John Carroll in Rome in the early 1770s to Fr Thomas Ellerker SJ. These letters give an insight into the mood in Rome where rumours were rife surrounding the imminent suppression of the Society. In one such letter, Carroll writes:
Our catastrophe is near at hand, if we must trust to present appearances, and the talk of Rome.
[Carroll to Ellerker, 23 January 1772, MSB/38 ff. 1-2]
Carroll was in Bruges in October 1773 when the College was forced to relocate again, this time to Liège, following the long-anticipated suppression of the worldwide Society by Pope Clement XIV.
Shortly after this, Carroll returned to his native Maryland to begin missionary work. He retained an interest in European affairs and in the progress of English Catholics. The bound volume of letters relating to the Maryland Mission contains some of Carroll’s letters in later life to Lord Arundell, Charles Plowden SJ and William Strickland SJ on the subject of war in Europe, hopes for the restoration of the Society and the tentative steps towards Catholic emancipation in Britain.
On his return to Maryland, Carroll was appointed Superior of the Mission. He established parishes and together with other Jesuits took the first steps towards establishing a hierarchy for the Catholic Church in America. In 1789, just a short time after George Washington became the first President of the United States, Baltimore was raised to an episcopal see with Carroll appointed Bishop. He was consecrated at Lulworth Castle Chapel in Dorset in 1790. As Bishop of Baltimore, Carroll founded Georgetown Academy (now Georgetown University) and oversaw the construction of the first cathedral in the United States, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. He officiated at the wedding of Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Napoleon, and Betsy Patterson in Baltimore in 1803. In 1808 Baltimore was raised to an Archbishopric and Carroll accordingly became the first Archbishop of Baltimore.
In Carroll’s letters to the English Jesuits, he was frequently concerned about being kept in the dark with regards to the fate of the Society. He writes of letters going astray, a lack of news and of hearing rumours of the restoration of the Society. Carroll was also concerned about how a restored Society would fare in the United States. In late 1814, Carroll finally received word of the full restoration of the Society. In a letter to Charles Plowden SJ he wrote:
Your most precious and grateful favour of Oct[obe]r 8th accompanied by a copy of the bull of Restoration was received early in Dec[embe]r and diffused the greatest sensation of joy and thanksgiving not only amongst the new and surviving members of the Society, but also all good Christians, who have remembrance of their services, or heard of their unjust and cruel treatment, and have witnessed the consequences of their Suppression.
[Carroll to Plowden, 5 January 1815, MSB/38, f. 128]
John Carroll died on 3rd December 1815. His was a long and full life. He had witnessed at first hand disturbances in Europe and the suppression of the Jesuits, he had returned to Maryland in the midst of the American Revolution, he had established the basis of a Catholic hierarchy and he had guided the American Jesuits through a most difficult period in their history.
The Archives hold a small collection of Carroll’s letters and letters from other influential figures in the Maryland Mission including Fr John Ashton SJ (Procurator at the White Marsh Mission), Fr Leonard Neale SJ (President of Georgetown College and later Archbishop of Baltimore) and Fr Anthony Kohlmann SJ. These letters shed light on Carroll’s life and times, chart the progress of the Maryland Mission into a Province in its own right and provide an insight into one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Society of Jesus. Please contact us for details of our holdings relating to Carroll and the Maryland Mission. More substantial collections relating to John Carroll are held at the Baltimore Cathedral Archives, Georgetown University Archives and the Maryland States Archives.