St. Francis of Assisi Parish St. Francis of Assisi Parish

History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish

Part 1: The Beginnings of Catholicism in Virginia*

Beginnings of the Diocese of Richmond

The Shenandoah Valley was originally settled primarily by the Scots-Irish Presbyterians. It was a characteristic of the Scots-Irish to be on the move and to be fierce fighters. They were farmers or skilled artisans and came to the New World because of the land tenure laws in Ulster, Ireland. In America they were attracted to colonies that had favorable land acquisition laws. Thus, when the colony of Virginia advertised for settlers to purchase plots in the Valley to protect Eastern Virginia from the Indians, characteristically the Scots-Irish quickly responded. They came mostly from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but some came directly from Ireland through the work of agents. By 1754 there were about two hundred families in the Valley. Among the mostly Scots-Irish Presbyterians were a few German Lutherans, Mennonites, and Anglicans.

Catholicism was virtually non­existent in the Shenandoah Valley as well as all of colonial Virginia. According to the report to Rome of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore in 1785, there were only twenty-five thousand Catholics and about fifty priests in the whole of the United States; moreover, the number of Catholics in Virginia did not exceed two hundred, and there was not even one priest.

Virginia, like all of colonial America, was at this time part of the Catholic Diocese of Baltimore. Although Roman Catholic priests accompanying Indians from the North are known to have offered Mass between 1600 and 1612, very few Catholics were among the original settlers of the colonies, except for Maryland, where Lord Baltimore was the first person in America to establish freedom of religion.

Most attempts of Catholics to settle in Virginia had been unsuccessful because worship was restricted and priests were arrested. Prejudice also existed towards Catholics because of fear about their political loyalty. During the 1600s Virginia Puritans made armed forays against Catholics in Maryland. These attacks were at least partly in retaliation against Maryland Catholics who came to Virginia to free Catholic indentured servants from their Virginia landowners with intent to take them back to Maryland. Between 1655 and 1658 Virginia marauders even raided a Maryland Jesuit manor house. The priests escaped and fled to Virginia. After order was restored, the priests returned to Maryland, except one who stayed under the pretext of being schoolmaster to the sons of a very rich businessman who was not at all hostile to the Catholic faith. The place where the priests hid out in Virginia was probably the settlement founded by Giles Brent.

In 1647 Giles Brent, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and some of his family, devout Catholics, had crossed the Potomac and settled along Aquia Creek (Stafford County). A few other Catholics settled in the surrounding countryside. This settlement is commemorated by a large crucifix which stands on U.S. Route 1, just north of St. William of York Catholic Church. Giles’ nephew George was the first Catholic member of the House of Burgesses. In 1685, when James II became King, George, with others of the community, bought three hundred acres of land and applied to the King for freedom of worship, which was granted. This was the first place in Virginia to allow freedom of religion. The Brents invited Huguenots from France and Catholics from England to settle on the land. Their freedom was short-lived, however, as James II was deposed in 1688. Catholicism was again illegal, but priests came in disguise to minister to the people of this settlement. In spite of the hardships, this community for the most part kept its ancient faith. Consequently, surprisingly enough, the rise of Catholicism in Virginia, and more specifically in Staunton, originated in Maryland at least three hundred years ago.

Acceptance of Catholicism in Virginia can be credited partly to the French in the Revolutionary War. The American cause was supported by many Frenchmen, including the French generals Rochambeau, DeGrasse, and Lafayette. Many Catholics from France came to Virginia during this period and fought in the ranks of these generals. General George Washington expressed appreciation to these Catholics on March 12, 1790, in the following words: “I presume your fellow citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their revolution and the establishment of their government, or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Catholic faith is professed.” (History of Virginia, p. 603)

During the period following the Revolution Virginia’s sympathies were pro-Catholic, causing more Catholics to come to Virginia. Most came from Maryland. Some of these had fought with the French soldiers in the ranks of the French generals during the Revolution and stayed when the war was over. A small number came from France. Notably, Father John Dubois fled religious turmoil in France with his parishioners, bringing with him letters from Lafayette to James Monroe, the Randolphs, and the Lees. These letters obtained for them a good welcome, and in the summer of 1791 this congregation settled in Norfolk, where they built a church. When winter came, Father Dubois travelled on to Richmond with his letters. He was a guest for a time at the home of James Monroe and took English lessons from Patrick Henry. By invitation of the General Assembly he celebrated Mass at the Capitol and converted several Virginians, among them a prominent member of the Lee family. During the time of Father Dubois’ work in Norfolk and Richmond, various missionaries were doing valiant work in Tidewater and the Valley of Virginia. Father Dubois himself served for a time as a missionary in the Valley. However, Bishop John Carroll recalled him to Frederick, Maryland. Although Dubois had been unable to establish a French settlement in Virginia, he went on to be founder of St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was for a while spiritual director of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity. In 1826 he became Bishop of New York and guided the destiny of the growing church in that area until his death in 1842.

Little more was done to spread Catholicism in Virginia until Archbishop James Whitfield of Baltimore wrote that he had sent “a zealous missionary” to Virginia and that he traversed the state, “finding Protestants everywhere eager to hear him.” (Magri, p. 49) Thus, by 1820 there was a total of seven churches in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, Martinsburg, Winchester, Bath, and Shepardstown. The Catholic population had grown to almost one thousand people.

The Catholics of Norfolk asked Rome to elevate Virginia into a diocese. Over the objection of Ambrose Marachal, the Archbishop of Baltimore, the Diocese of Richmond was created and the Reverend Patrick Kelly of Kilkenny, Ireland, was appointed Bishop. He made Norfolk his residence but encountered major problems. The trustees owned the churches and could, by civil law, dismiss the pastor. The Irish had brought in an Irish priest, Father Carbry, whom they had hoped would become Bishop. They were in rebellion against Archbishop Marachal, a Frenchman by birth, who had appointed a Portuguese priest. The French and Irish Catholics were worshipping in separate churches. Bishop Kelly closed the French Church; as a result, the French Catholics complained to the Archbishop of Baltimore saying they could not understand English. Bishop Kelly soon also had a disagreement with the Irish priest, Father Carbry, who left for North Carolina. Bishop Kelly started a school so he could support himself by teaching. After only two years he returned to Ireland, and Virginia was once more a part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Catholicism increased around 1830 by the immigration of Catholics from Ireland. This country probably sent more emigrants than any other European country. The Irish came primarily because of crop failures and religious persecution in their native country. Most Irish immigrants were unskilled and settled in major cities where they made a significant ethnic and religious impact. Those who came to rural Virginia were primarily small farmers and skilled artisans, except for the boatloads of laborers who came to build the railroads and the canals.

Diseases such as cholera and yellow fever were common among the crowded conditions of the cities and railroad camps, and new immigrants were needed to compensate for losses. Orphans were common and many convents were established to operate orphanages. The Sisters of Charity operated an orphanage at Emmitsburg, Maryland.


*This history of Staunton’s Catholic parish is taken from A History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Staunton, Virginia: Celebrating 150 Years, 1845-1995 by Hampton H. Hairfield, Jr., Elizabeth M. Hairfield, and Jane E. Smith (published in 1995) and used with permission.

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