On August 15, 1790, John Carroll became the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The son of a wealthy Catholic merchant, Carroll was born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1736 and had significant Revolutionary connections.1 His cousin, Charles Carroll, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; his brother, Daniel Carroll, signed the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.
Wherefore it having reached our ears that in the flourishing commonwealth of the Thirteen American States many faithful Christians united in communion with the chair of Peter, in which the centre of Catholic unity is fixed…earnestly desire that a Bishop may be appointed over them…We willingly embraced this opportunity which the grace of Almighty God has afforded us to provide those distant regions with the comfort and ministry of a Catholic Bishop.
A Short Account of the Establishment of the New See of Baltimore in Maryland…. Charles Plowden, London: J. P. Coghlan, 1790, 12-13. The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925
After receiving a Jesuit education at the Bohemia Academy in Cecil County, Maryland, Carroll studied abroad at the English-language Jesuit College of St. Omer in Flanders. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1761 and remained in Europe teaching philosophy and theology. When Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Jesuit order in 1773, Carroll returned to Maryland, serving local Catholics from a chapel built on his family’s estate at Rock Creek, near present-day Forest Glen. In 1776, he took part in a diplomatic mission to Canada on behalf of the Continental Congress. Though the effort failed to win over Canada to the American cause, Carroll gained the friendship of Benjamin Franklin, who was important to his later success.
In June 1783, a small group of priests called together by Carroll met at the chapel at White Marsh (now known as Sacred Heart Church) in Bowie, Maryland, to discuss how the Catholic Church in the new United States would be governed and its property managed. The group drew up a constitution and petitioned Rome to appoint John Lewis, former superior of the Jesuits in MarylandExternal, as the superior of the American missions. However, and in part through the influence of then-U.S. minister to France Benjamin Franklin, the Vatican appointed John Carroll instead.
In 1784, John Carroll authored An address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America. By a Catholic Clergyman. Carroll and his fellow priests were, after the American Revolution, concerned that the Catholic Church be accepted by Americans, who were primarily Protestant and had a history of distrusting Catholic allegiance to the Pope. During further meetings at White Marsh, the need emerged for the appointment of an American bishop—one who was, in the spirit of the new nation, elected in a democratic fashion by American priests. In a petition dated March 12, 1788, priests John Carroll, Robert Molyneux, and John Ashton asked that an American diocese be created and that the selection of bishop be left to its clergy. The petition was granted and on May 18, 1789, John Carroll was elected by twenty-four out of twenty-six possible votes. Baltimore was selected as the seat of the American Catholic Church, where St. Mary’s Seminary was soon established. It was during these years that an academy (later college) at Georgetown was founded as well.
Carroll traveled to England where he was consecrated a bishop at Lulworth Castle, England, home of his good friend Thomas Weld. Bishop Carroll returned to Baltimore on December 7, 1790, where he took up residence and preached his first sermon at St. Peter’s church, which served as Baltimore’s temporary cathedral until a basilica designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe could be constructed.
John Carroll is considered the architect of the Maryland Catholic tradition, stressing ecumenicalism and civic participation across religious lines. He was elevated to archbishop of Baltimore in 1808, overseeing Catholics in five U.S. dioceses as well as the Danish West Indies. While he had quietly restored the Jesuits to Maryland through an affiliation with the still-extant Russian community, Carroll lived to see the worldwide restoration of the order by Rome in 1814. Archbishop John Carroll died in December 1815, six years before the first permanent U.S. cathedral at Baltimore was consecrated.
- With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, Britain and its colonies replaced the Julian (Old Style) calendar with the Gregorian calendar in 1752, adjusting all dates forward by eleven days. At the same time, New Year’s Day was moved from March 25 to January 1. John Carroll’s January 8, 1735, birth date therefore became the New Style date of January 19, 1736. (Return to text)
- The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925 contains more information about John Carroll and the beginnings of the Catholic Church in America. A search of Catholic will find many references to Catholics in the Chesapeake region. Search Carroll to find members of the Carroll family, or refine your search to John Carroll or Daniel Carroll. Other well-known Catholic families from the Chesapeake region include Calvert, Claggett, Digges, Simms, Brent, Fenwick, and Neale, though many members of these prominent families were Anglican or Episcopalian as well. Search on these terms as well as the names of other religious faiths to learn about religion in the Chesapeake region. Learn more about religious archives throughout the state of Maryland.
- Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was also the birthplace of Thomas John Claggett, the first Episcopalian Bishop in the United States. Search Upper Marlboro MD in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey to find images of the church Claggett founded, Trinity Episcopal Church, as well as other architectural structures in the Upper Marlboro area.
- Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and consecrated in 1821, the Baltimore Basilica has become a city landmark. Read about its architectural history in an Historic American Buildings Survey entry and see an early measured drawing by architect Charles Bullfinch. View additional color architectural photographs of the bascilica in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Search the Highsmith archive on Baltimore, Maryland, church, and basilica to find related houses of worship.
- For a broad introduction to the role that religion played in the founding of the American colonies, visit the online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Highlighted are more than two hundred objects including early American books, manuscripts, letters, prints, paintings, artifacts, and music. Scroll to the middle of the America as Refuge section to find a richly illustrated history of Roman Catholics in Maryland.
- Read additional Today in History features to learn more about Maryland’s history, including entries on Maryland Day, Cardinal James Gibbons, Reverdy Johnson, and Johns Hopkins. Search Today in History on Maryland for even more entries.