The route today to St. Mary’s City, Maryland, is from the north. It snakes through sprawling suburbs, down Maryland’s western peninsula, and leaves behind the power centers of Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis.
This is not how people in the seventeenth century approached Maryland’s first capital. Then they came by boat, up the Chesapeake to the Potomac, where they diverted inland to the St. Mary’s River. On its banks in 1634, St. Mary’s City was established by refugee English Catholics. Their settlement was the brainchild of the Calvert family, whose members influenced much of American colonial Catholicism, and whose name was later invoked by the Calvert Associates, the group that founded Commonweal in 1924.
Like Jamestown, Virginia, its predecessor settlement, St. Mary’s City simply vanished. Today it can be known only through its archaeological remains, the structures being recreated on the original site’s old brick foundations, and from the shards of human habitation reclaimed and exhibited in a nearby museum.
The area, now stunningly beautiful, was once harsh terrain. The small band of settlers, challenged both by the environment and the vagaries of human community, had crafted a vision for survival born of pragmatism and their own minority status. In seventeenth-century England, where politics and religion were conjoined, Catholicism was outlawed. As a result, in the Calverts’ new...