On Mary’s Birthday, Sept. 8th, I was invited back to the parish of my first assignment as a priest (1988-1991), which was St. Mary’s in Rockville Md.. The occasion was their 200th parish anniversary. Cardinal Wuerl presided over the Mass, and a social followed afterward. In his homily, His Eminence noted that the original diocese of the colonies (and the U.S. Church) was Baltimore, and it had begun just a handful years early, when in 1813 they looked to begin a parish in Rockville, and it was Bishop John Carroll who assigned a 1-year -ordained priest there to be its pastor. By 1817 the congregation had built a chapel, and it has remained since then on that spot (now being the intersection of Rt. 355 and Rt. 28/Veirs Mill Rd.). The chapel is now a historical building of Maryland, though in great shape and still in daily use for Masses for parish daily liturgies and week-end ones for weddings and for a Chinese Mass. (A restoration project in the 1980′s preserved it so.)
Cardinal Wuerl was reminiscing of the kind of dedication and evangelism that it took in the early 1800′s for such a new parish to become launched. He also applied the lesson of those first parishioners to be an inspiration for the present parishioners of a New Millenium to keep serving Jesus Christ and His mission there. He spoke of the large numbers now going to Mass at St. Mary’s Rockville (they have a large modern church on the property, too) and its reputation for assisting the poor and needy, in cooperative efforts with the local, county and state governments. In the early 1800′s, the parish started out with an outreach to the needs of many immigrant workers who were building the C & O canal.
Archbishop Carroll himself had been the priest for 13 years who solely pastored Catholics in Montgomery County, up to 1787, when he moved to Baltimore, and then 26 years passed before the county received its first official pastor in one Fr. James Redmond in 1813 at the new St. Mary’s parish of Rockville. Inbetween, they had a Jesuit priest named Fr. Robert Plunkett, who rode horseback up and down the deep country roads of Montgomery County, from Forest Glen to Rockville to Olney, for ministry. (He was the same Fr. Plunkett who, after arriving from England, assisted the founding of Port Tobacco Carmelite Monastery, south of here in LaPlata–which still remains operating.)
When Fr. Redmond began ministry at St. Mary’s, he also was responsible to go around the county to offer the Sacraments and other priestly ministry. His rectory home was in the chapel, above the sacristy, at St. Mary’s. Yet he often also stayed in homes out and about in the county, such as when up to Clopper Road (Gaithersburg, now, off Rt. 270) to serve 100 or so Catholics there, and up to Barnesville to serve 160 persons (they built a church in 1808 to successfully attract a pastoral stop), and the priest also covered Brookeville/Olney to serve a few dozen Catholics there, and then traveled down to Forest Glen (now Silver Spring at the Beltway) to serve another 70 to 80 persons. It was the start of Catholicism in the country places of Maryland, called Montgomery County. After Fr. Redmond served his time, St. Mary’s parish in Rockville would always have young energetic pastors assigned there to meet the demands of so much work and movement. Today, in 2013, it has two priests assigned there under the ‘new’ (19498-on) Archdiocese of Washington and its archbishop, and the priests only have a section of Rockville to cover (no more cross-county travel–though the clergy now have cars!). Rockville is a busy place, though, with a very large population. Five other parishes serve Rockville today: St. Raphael’s, Holy Cross, St. Elizabeth, St. Jude’s and St. Patrick’s.
All clergy of the parish history of St. Mary’s Rockville were invited back for this historic day. It turns out, I am the second-to-oldest priest that dates backward. Fr. Mark Hughes served as the associate pastor before me, in the 1980′s, and then I came in the Summer of 1988. All the clergy before that, and a few after us, are deceased or have left ministry. That was a little surprising for me! Normally there are a few monsignors and/or retired priests that one can find that has served a parish back some earlier time than yourself. Yet priests like Msgr.Kostack, Msgr. Hahn, Msgr. Gatta (yes, same one as St. Ed’s founding pastor), Msgr. Reddy, Fr. Silk, Fr. Powderly, and others had all passed. I–just going back to 25 years ago–am paired with Fr. Mark (1980′s associate pastor) as the two senior, ‘furthest back’ priests of the parish. Yet the list is quite a long one, as clergy names for St. Mary’s go back for two centuries.
In comparison to our own St. Edward’s parish here in Bowie, we go back 40 years to our founding, with just five priests in our history, and we have about the same population in numbers as at our start, due to much transition in South Bowie. St. Mary’s Rockville started with 70-80 persons trying to found a parish 200 years ago, and now they have many thousands there. They once seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, now Rockville is a bustling place, with a MARC, Amtrak, and Metro train station next to St. Mary’s parish property, a Metrobus center, and one of the busiest vehicle traffic arteries of the DC area out front in the merging of three main roads (the mixing bowl, as they call it).
St. Edward’s has seen the busyness of South Bowie pick up quite a bit, too, over the four decades. Yet, we are glad it still in suburban, and not urban in nature. Our parish church remains with much of the small-sized and personal charm it had when it started. Our work is to keep developing it with the dedication of our own founding members.