Newtowne Neck is one of those places where there is still far more land than people. The priests who settled here in 1668 came for just that reason.
The club-shaped peninsula of Newtowne Neck protrudes from the north shore of the Potomac River about six miles south of Leonardtown in St. Mary’s County, MD. It’s bounded on one side by Breton Bay and on the other by Saint Clements Bay, where English colonists arrived on the Ark and the Dove in 1634.
Today, seven miles of sandy shoreline wrap around the 776-acre parcel that has become Newtowne Neck State Park, one of the most recent additions to Maryland’s park system. The state purchased the land in 2009 from the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus — an order of Catholic priests, called Jesuits, who had held it for more than 300 years.
“When it was offered, it looked like a really attractive property,” said Mary Owens, chief planner for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “It had so much shoreline and a really well-maintained rural landscape. Just walking along the road is beautiful.”
The purchase of Newtowne Neck was part of package deal. The Jesuits made four historic sites in Maryland available: Newtowne Neck and St. Inigoes in St. Mary’s County, Cedar Point in Charles County, and Old Bohemia in Cecil County on the Eastern Shore. Together, the properties total almost 4,500 acres and nearly 20 miles of shoreline along the Potomac River. The state, with help from The Conservation Fund. The Friends of the John Smith Trail, which later became Chesapeake Conservancy, also helped to push the deal.
About 70 percent of Newtowne Neck is in the state-designated Critical Area, which includes all land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and wetlands. Along with the Potomac River waterfront, the park includes woodlands, wetlands and a couple of streams.
“It’s a real overlay of significant resources,” Owens said.
The four parcels have conservation value in part because they have changed so little through the centuries. The Jesuits farmed the land to provide financial support for their work, and the land continues to be farmed today. Only a handful of buildings exist at each site, leaving the landscape largely intact.
The three tracts along the Potomac River also offer the opportunity for public access to river and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, part of which runs up the Potomac to Washington, DC.
At Newtowne Neck, you’ll pass wide fields along the single road that travels to the tip of the peninsula. By the time the road reaches the shoreline — if it’s corn season — the stalks may be pushing fairly close to the car like the walls of a tall green alley. But roughly half of Newtowne Neck is still in forests, meadows and wetlands. The DNR has reworked logging trails and deer trails into footpaths, and hikers are slowly discovering their remote, quiet beauty.
The Catholics who arrived along these shores were also looking for a remote location, and their arrival was important to Catholic history in Maryland and the United States as a whole.
In the early 1600s, England was ruled by a Protestant king, and the Catholic faith was actively suppressed. Yet George Calvert, a Catholic, had won the king’s favor. The king granted Calvert land in North America, where he could found a colony that offered religious freedom.
George Calvert died before the voyage was organized. His son Calvin took charge of the charter, and in 1634 his son Leonard led the colonists across the Atlantic and eventually up the Potomac River. The two small ships, the Ark and the Dove, carried more than 150 passengers. Among them were 17 Catholic men and three Jesuit priests.
In March, they landed on an island in the Potomac River. They named it after St. Clement, the patron saint of sailors, and the Catholics among them celebrated a Mass, said to be the first in Maryland.
They did not, of course, arrive in a land without people. This portion of the river was part of the larger cultural landscape of the Piscataway people, American Indians whose presence on Newtowne Neck has been documented as early as 4000 B.C. Both archaeology and historic records indicate that the Piscataway continued to live on the peninsula for a short period after the Europeans arrived, before the spread of the English picked up speed and native communities were displaced from their land.
To the colonists, the shores of the Potomac looked like land for the taking. To the Jesuits in particular, Maryland promised hope — a place far enough from England where they could take root, practice their faith and flourish.
Yet Catholics in Maryland remained in an odd position. They lived in a colony that tolerated Catholicism under a king who, officially, did not. So to obtain land in Maryland, the Jesuits used a third party — an independent, Catholic citizen —acting on their behalf.
The land at Newtowne Neck soon followed this path. The tract was patented to William Bretton in 1640, just six years after the landing at St. Clements Island. Jesuits began ministering in the area that same year. Bretton, who was Catholic, donated land to the Jesuits in 1661 for a church and graveyard.
In 1668, Bretton sold the rest of his land directly to a Jesuit priest. The price was 40,000 pounds of tobacco.
“It was a base from which to serve, but also to make money,” said Father Thomas Clifford of the St. Ignatius Church, a historic church with a similar history farther upstream in Port Tobacco, MD, on Chapel Point.
About four priests lived at the “Newtown Manor House,” along with a few assistants. They traveled on horseback to celebrate Mass and conduct rites for Catholic families in the surrounding area.
At the same time, the priests managed plantations, first with labor from indentured servants and then with enslaved people.
“We never did a good job of it because we weren’t farmers,” Clifford said. “We’d hire overseers, and some were run better than others.”
Newtowne Neck, approximately 850 acres in 1668, was one of the smaller Jesuit plantations in Maryland. Others ranged from approximately 2,000–5,000 acres. The size of the properties shifted through the years, and the records indicate large losses to erosion.
Still, their collective holdings made the Society of Jesus one of the largest colonial landowners after the Calverts.
Restrictions on Catholicism grew after 1688. Public worship was banned, so Masses took place in family homes or in chapels on private land. The chapel at Newtowne Neck closed in 1704 and a new chapel was built, attached to the manor house, to comply with the law.
By 1731, when tolerance returned, the Jesuits built a new chapel and manor house. The chapel still exists as St. Francis Xavier Parish and celebrates Masses today. The manor house was replaced in 1789 by a large brick home with double chimneys at each gable. It stands immediately next to the church, in need of preservation. While both are visible from the road into the park, they are on private land available for church use only.
The Jesuits have otherwise left remarkably few traces on the landscape, except for a recent, extensive project to stabilize the shoreline. The sandy beaches that resulted from their work are now left for the enjoyment of park visitors, providing another much-needed option for waterfront access in the Chesapeake Bay region. Wading is allowed, but not swimming.
The Department of Natural Resources also added a canoe and kayak launch on the calm, protected waters of Breton Bay. It’s an open area with ample parking, right along the entrance road, and the water’s edge is just a few strides away from your car.
Metal detecting is not allowed, and any unusual objects should be left alone and reported. That’s because park planners discovered ordnance dating from World War II after the property was purchased. The grounds remained closed as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigated their source and assessed the danger.
“They did a very comprehensive job,” Owens said.
The Corps discovered that the U.S. Navy had leased the property in the 1940s to test fuze components. All munitions debris found on the property was inert, and the park reopened in April 2014. As an extra caution, visitors are asked to avoid anything that resembles a bullet or bomb, small cans, pipes, or even a car muffler, and to report their find to the police.
A long-term plan is still in the works for Newtowne Neck, as well as other former Jesuit properties now owned by the state. Wildlife management, recreational options, park facilities and historical interpretation are each an important component of the plan, which will be developed with public input.
On Saturday, Sept. 27, the Department of Natural Resources is hosting at open house at Newtowne Neck State Park to encourage more people to explore its trails and shorelines, as well as to ask for public feedback.
“We’ll be there with maps answering questions,” Owens said, “but we want to ask questions, too, and find out what kind of vision people have for the future of the park.”
Newtowne Neck State Park
Newtowne Neck State Park is at the southern end of Newtowne Neck Road (MD Route 243), south of Leonardtown in Southern Maryland. The park is open sunrise to sunset. Some activities are permitted outside of the regular hours (fishing, boat launching and hunting where permitted). Check with the park before your visit if you’d like to be on the grounds before or after the posted hours. Pets are allowed in the park. For information, contact the park at 301-872-5688 or visit http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands and click on “Find a State Park.”
Historic Jesuit lands now state treasures
- Newtowne Neck State Park (St. Mary’s County): Offers about seven miles of water frontage along 776 acres that are fairly evenly divided between woodlands and farm fields. Shoreline stabilization efforts, installed by the Jesuits, have created sandy beaches edged with thick patches of grass.
- Cedar Point Wildlife Management Area (Charles County): This parcel of 1,926 acres includes lots of forest land, as well as waterfront access to the Potomac and Port Tobacco rivers. The property will primarily provide hunting access and wildlife management opportunities.
- Old Bohemia Wildlife Management Area (Cecil County): Most of the area’s 975 acres are being leased for farming. Long-term plans for the property will likely focus on managing wildlife habitat, providing wildlife-related recreation and hunting. A historic house, the St. Francis Xavier Tenant House, is located on the property.
- St. Inigoes State Forest (St. Mary’s County): St. Inigoes has 525 acres of farm land, 300 acres of forest, and more than 100 acres of wetlands. The shoreline offers excellent views of the Potomac River and Smith Creek. A few houses, several outbuildings and a historic tobacco barn are also on the property.