A view of St. Ignatius Church in Port Tobacco, Md., which is in the Washington Archdiocese. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
By Sarah McCarthy
PORT TOBACCO, Md. –- Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Port Tobacco River in southern Maryland, St. Ignatius Church stands out against a backdrop of colorful autumn trees and vacant farmland. The large red brick building, adorned by a white steeple, has occupied this spot for more than 200 years.
Founded in 1641 by an English Jesuit missionary, Father Andrew White, St. Ignatius bears the distinction of being the oldest continuously active parish in the U.S.
The parish cemetery, situated on the sloping hillside in front of the church, holds tombstones dating back to the 19th century, while the current church building was erected in 1798. During a recent visit by a Catholic News Service reporter and photographer to the historical site, Jesuit Father Tom Clifford, who became the pastor of St. Ignatius in 2013, discussed the church’s history and explained the significance of Catholic cemeteries.
“People today choose … a Catholic cemetery because it’s their parish cemetery … and they have a sense of their belonging, which of course is part of what being buried in a Catholic cemetery is about,” he said. “It’s belonging, in a kind of tangible, visible way, to the communion of saints, to those who are living and deceased, who all believe in Christ.”
When Father White and other Jesuit priests established the parish in the 17th century, their goal was to establish an English colony and convert the Potobac Indians who lived on the land. While the original church was placed right on the riverbank, it was subsequently moved upward to avoid flooding. The church’s elevation, Father Clifford said, lends a spiritual significance to its mission.
Looking out at St. Ignatius cemetery from church window. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
“In some sense, having the church at the top of the hill … is beautiful, but it also shows the connection of the graves and those who are buried in them to the church and ultimately to God.”
Traditionally, church cemeteries were used to bury parishioners whose loved ones did not have their own private plots. Today, only registered parishioners of St. Ignatius are allowed to be buried in the cemetery. Father Clifford said this tradition allows people to (Read More)