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The foundation of the Carmelites of Port Tobacco

This drawing first published in 1890 in book Carmel in America by Charles Warren Currier shows the layout of the original monastery of the Discalced Carmelites at Port Tobacco. 

In July of 1790, a sloop carrying Father Charles Neale, S.J., and four Discalced Carmelite sisters left Norfolk, Virginia, where they had stopped after a long Atlantic crossing. The sloop sailed north up the Chesapeake Bay. The group was coming back to Maryland from Europe to found the first monastery for women religious in the United States. All but one of the travelers was originally from Maryland. 

Father Charles Neale was the brother of Father Leonard Neale, S.J., the future archbishop of Baltimore, and Father Francis Neale, S.J., who would serve as president of Georgetown College. The four sisters included the Reverend Mother Bernardina Teresa Xavier (Ann Matthews) and her two nieces, Sister Mary Aloysia of the Blessed Trinity (Ann Teresa Matthews) and Sister Mary Eleanora of Saint Francis Xavier (Susanna Matthews). They traveled with Mother Clare Joseph of the Sacred Heart (Frances Dickenson), who was from England. Mother Bernardina was the sister of Father Ignatius Matthews, S.J., who was the pastor at Newtown. Sister Mary Aloysia and Sister Mary Eleanora were sisters of Father William Matthews, who would soon become the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in the newly founded city of Washington.  

The travelers stopped at Brentfield, the home of Robert Brent, three miles above Pope’s Creek in Charles County. Robert Brent also had a connection to this effort. His sister, Mother Mary Margaret Brent, had been prioress of the English-speaking Carmelite house in Antwerp, and with Mother Bernardina, the prioress of a monastery in Hoogstraeten, planned for the foundation in Maryland. Mother Mary Margaret Brent died in 1784, and this put the idea on hold for several years.  

After arriving in Charles County, the group was met by Ignatius Matthews – Mother Bernardina’s nephew and the brother of Sister Mary Aloysia and Sister Mary Eleanora –who came bearing news that Father Ignatius Matthews, S.J. had died while the group was at sea. The monastery was originally to be founded near the Jesuit plantation at Newtown where he was pastor, but with his death that plan could no longer be undertaken. 

Father Charles Neale, S.J. had also worked for this foundation, and he was not to be outdone by a setback. He invited the sisters to stay in a family home on the north side of Port Tobacco, Chandler’s Hope. The plantation was not suitable for a new foundation of nuns, so Father Neale exchanged the portion of the plantation that he owned for another parcel farther north with a neighbor, Baker Brooke. This parcel had some sparse buildings, but a new monastery would have to be built for the nuns. The sisters moved to their new site on Oct. 15, 1790, the feast of their foundress, St. Teresa of Avila.  

They expanded this existing farm to support their needs. The buildings on the site included reception rooms, a choir and chapel, infirmary, kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the nuns and the enslaved workers who supported them. A chaplain’s cottage for Father Neale was located outside the enclosure. The Carmel in the early 19th century was a working plantation. The home farm produced wheat, corn and tobacco, and a vegetable garden supplied food for the nuns. Medicinal herbs were likely also grown.  There was a water mill on the property that would have ground the wheat in flour and the corn into meal for the nuns. There was also a flock of sheep. 

It is important to note that the nuns lived in the same way that their families did. The Carmel was originally a working plantation. A check of the 1820 United States Census shows that Father Neale was the only white man living on the property with 27 nuns inside the enclosure. There were also 41 enslaved person recorded as living on the plantation, which would make the Carmelites one of the largest owners of enslaved persons in Charles County at that time. Sixteen of these enslaved person worked in agriculture, and two in manufacturing. Those enslaved workers tasked with agriculture worked in the fields growing the various crops listed above. The two tasked with manufacturing likely ran the grist mill on the property. The money made from the crops and the mill went to support the monastery and the nuns. There were also 11 enslaved women who would have worked inside the monastery and inside the enclosure to assist the nuns with the domestic chores. Fifteen of the enslaved residents were children under the age of 14.

Mother Bernardina had died only 10 years after returning home to Maryland in 1800.  Father Charles Neale, S.J. died in 1823. Mother Clare Joseph became the next prioress after Mother Bernardina. She died in 1830, but by that point Mount Carmel went into decline. Tobacco farming had become very unprofitable by 1820, with much of the land exhausted and yielding smaller and less fruitful crops. This would have caused a decline in the nuns’ support and made it harder to maintain Mount Carmel.  

This photo was taken in the early the early 20th century by John Brosnan, S.J. It shows the two building left at the site of the Carmelite Monastery in Port Tobacco. It is believed that these two buildings were not originally adjacent to each other. The smaller one-story building is believed to have been the infirmary that was inside the enclosure. The two-story portion was the last building built on the site and it was moved next to the infirmary later in the 19th century. (John Brosnan, S.J. Photographic Collection, Woodstock Theological Library, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.)

At the time of Mother Clare Joseph’s death, Archbishop James Whitfield of Baltimore decided to move the monastery to Baltimore on Aisquith Street. It was in Baltimore where the nuns would remain for more than a century. The land upon which the Carmel was built was sold back to the Neale family. According to the 1830 United State Census, there were 43 enslaved men, women and children at the Carmel. Some of them would have come to Baltimore to continue to assist the nuns. However, records indicate many were sold. It is unclear if any of the people were sold south, but it is documented that some were sold locally in Maryland. It is important to note that although the archbishop of Baltimore wanted the monastery to move to that city, it was the Carmelites who bore the entire expense. The archbishop assumed they would do this by selling all their “property” in Southern Maryland. Their property included land as well as people.  

The nuns would return to Port Tobacco, but not for more than a century.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)