Sacred Heart Chapel in Bowie.
Sacred Heart Chapel in Bowie.
Prince George's County, one of the five Maryland counties that are part of the Archdiocese of Washington, is rich in both Church and American history.

The past, the present and the future mix effortlessly in the county as evidenced by the fact that it is home to both the world's oldest continuously operating airport and the hub for all of NASA's space tracking activities.

The county also boasts one of the most historically important churches in the archdiocese and the nation. Located in Bowie, on the far eastern part of the county, is Sacred Heart Parish.

The parish's original chapel, built in 1741, played a significant part in fostering the Catholic faith in this area and this country.

It was in the chapel (then called a "Masshouse" because the construction of Catholic churches was at the time outlawed), that American clergy meet for the first time. It was also there that the priests nominated Father John Carroll to the Holy See as the first American bishop. Mass was celebrated in the chapel to mark Bishop Carroll's election as the nation's first Catholic bishop in 1789.

At the time, the original 13 states were all part of the Diocese of Baltimore.

"The Catholic Church in an organized fashion (in the United States) began here with the election of John Carroll," said Msgr. Charles Parry, the pastor of the parish. "It is from this Masshouse that people clung to their faith. The (Church) hierarchy in this country was launched from here."
Situated on what was known in colonial times as Whitemarsh Plantation, the land on which the chapel was built was willed to the Jesuits by James Carroll in 1728.

Almost consumed by fire in 1853, the building still includes the original stone walls, sanctuary and sacristy.

The parish campus, spread over several acres, includes not only the chapel and the main church built in 1969, but also a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, an historic rectory, an outdoor stations of the cross and an education building constructed over where the original rectory and a Jesuit novitiate once stood. Both the original rectory and novitiate were destroyed in the 1853 fire, but their connection to the parish remains.

Msgr. Parry noted that wood from the original rectory was used to fashion the cross beams of the crucifix that hangs in the main church. Wood from the original rectory was also used to build the altar of repose for the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Msgr. Parry said the conservation and care of the parish's historical locations "was brought about by Msgr. John Hogan (the late pastor there) and his effort and energy."

The parish grounds are open from dawn until dusk every day. "People come here all the time," Msgr. Parry said. "You always see people wandering the property." He added that while the grotto, cemetery and grounds are open to everyone, the chapel is not a tourist stop.

"Despite its historical significance, the chapel is not a museum. We do everything in this chapel," he said. Noting that daily Mass and most parish weddings, funerals and baptisms are held in the chapel, Msgr. Parry stressed that "the faith is still celebrated here (in the chapel). This is a place of active, living worship."

While visitors cannot walk through the chapel whenever they wish, Msgr. Parry noted that "we invite everyone to join us in the chapel in worshipping at daily Mass." Mass is offered in the chapel Monday through Friday at 8 a.m., and on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m.

When Msgr. Parry prepares for Mass in the chapel, he vests in the very room where John Carroll was selected the first bishop in the United States. "How can it not have an effect on you as a priest?" he asked.

According to the parish history, the cemetery at Sacred Heart goes back to the 1700s. The first recorded date of a burial is in the very early 1800s. Slaves who worked the plantation were probably buried there in the very early years.

The novitiate for young men studying for the priesthood was established on the parish grounds in 1814.

"I must say, the Jesuits had the foresight to realize that they had to begin to organize and train local, indigenous clergy to serve the people," Msgr. Parry said.

The parish includes a grotto that is believed to be one of the oldest in the United States dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. "It is a very simple grotto," Msgr. Parry said. "It was blessed in 1874, and the springs of water still flow from it."

Built in the first decades after the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the apparitions of Lourdes were deemed worthy of belief, the grotto was the site of many pilgrimages. Over years, it became overgrown and deteriorated, but was rediscovered and restored in the 1950s.

The loving care with which the grounds and chapel are maintained and the great interest and pride parishioners have for their parish's place in history, Msgr. Parry said, "is a testimony to the faith of generations of Catholics who have proclaimed the glory of God to their children and to the next generation."

Msgr. Parry also said the upkeep of the cemetery, the grotto, and the Masshouse chapel is important because "these grounds remind us who we are and how we are called to live our vocation to holiness. This sacred ground lifts us up to look heavenward. Here, from this spot, we also touch the kingdom of heaven."

As pastor of the parish, and therefore de facto caretaker of such an historical treasure, Msgr. Parry said that his responsibilities are "humbling and invigorating at the same time."

With its historical connection to the "organized" Church, Msgr. Parry said that it is not surprising that parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish "are supportive of the Holy Father, our archbishop and the hierarchy. They love the priesthood. They are respectful of that vocation and they encourage it."

Msgr. Parry points with pride to the fact that "in all my 11 years here, there has not been one year that we've not had at least one parishioner in the seminary or in the process of discernment."

"God has blessed this place," he said. "God has shown His delight in the faithfulness of His people by raising up from here vocations to the priesthood and to religious life."

In addition to the many priests that have come from Sacred Heart and other Bowie parishes, at least two women religious also call Bowie their home town, Msgr. Parry said.

Because of its reverence for its past, the parish offers every new parishioner, when they register, a copy of the parish history.

"The awesome history of this parish is the foundation for the active and lively continuation of the faith in the modern world," Msgr. Parry said.

Currently, there are 1,000 registered families in the parish. Msgr. Parry ministers to the faithful with the assistance of Father John Clark, his parochial vicar.

The parish sits on the border of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, and as such, its neighboring parish to the east is in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Just down the road from Sacred Heart Parish is Priests Bridge. It was constructed over the Patuxent River by the Jesuits who resided at Whitemarsh and ministered on the other side of the river.

"The parishioners here are very much attuned to the history (of the parish)," Msgr. Parry said. "In a very unique and profound way, the hand of God rests over this property, over this place. There is a sacred quality here that is reflected in how the people love their Catholic faith and cherish it."