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St. Francis Xavier Parish in Newtowne celebrates 360th anniversary, and cardinal blesses ghost structure at site of first chapel

On Dec. 4, Cardinal Wilton Gregory blesses the “ghost structure” framework at the St. Francis Xavier Church Cemetery in Newtowne, Maryland, marking what is believed to be the site of the first chapel in the area. At left is Father Ryan Pineda, the administrator of St. Francis Xavier Parish, and standing at right next to the cardinal is Deacon Joel Carpenter. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

If a church no longer stands, is the land of the former structure still sacred ground? Yes, as evidenced by the blessing of the ghost structure of what is believed to be the site of the first chapel in the St. Francis Xavier Parish Cemetery in Newtowne, Maryland.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrated a Mass on Dec. 4 at St. Francis Xavier Parish to celebrate its 360th anniversary before heading down the road to the cemetery to bless the ghost structure, a memorial, and the fence that borders the cemetery. The memorial honors the unmarked grave sites of the enslaved people of the area. The border of the cemetery features the Stations of the Cross.

The ghost structure in the St. Francis Xavier Parish cemetery features the frame of what is believed to be the first chapel built in the Newtowne, Maryland, area. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

The chapel, the precursor of today's St. Francis Xavier Church, was founded in 1662 when William Bretton and his wife donated the site for the local community to construct a chapel and cemetery.

The Society of Jesus did not purchase the land, known as the Manor of Little Bretton, until 1668. This property was then utilized as the Jesuit headquarters in that area. During this period, numerous enslaved people worked for the Jesuits, and while many of them converted to Catholicism, the whereabouts of many of their remains are unknown.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory smiles at parishioners at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne, Maryland as he processes to the altar for a Dec. 4 mass to celebrate the parish’s 360th anniversary.(CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Parishioners lined the pews at St. Francis Xavier Church for Cardinal Gregory's second Sunday of Advent Mass, which he celebrated with Father Ryan Pineda, the parish’s administrator. Deacon Joel Carpenter assisted at the Mass.

During his homily, Cardinal Gregory covered many concepts. To start, he compared the traffic flow of cities he has visited and lived in, including Chicago, Rome and St. Louis.

“Each community has its own path of gridlock,” Cardinal Gregory said.

He stated that communities would react differently to different sorts of traffic, suggesting that some towns would not consider other communities' traffic to be an issue, while others would be overwhelmed by traffic. This served as a metaphor for how individuals resist faith in their lives.

“Our lives are gridlocked with far too many obstacles for the Lord to enter very easily,” Cardinal Gregory said.

Advent is a time to recognize and remove what the cardinal referred to as our “stumbling blocks.” One way to combat this is to receive the sacrament of Confession to make room for God, the cardinal said.

“It’s a sacrament that helps clear up the clutter of our lives,” he said.

A woman prays during a Dec. 4 Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

He then discussed the upcoming Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, saying that Mary did not have “roadblocks of sin” between her and God.

This Advent will, Cardinal Gregory said, “be a season when we can all remove a few of the barriers that make it so difficult for the Lord to enter our lives.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrates Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne, Maryland on Dec. 4. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Agnes Russell Driscoll grew up on St. Clement’s Shores in nearby Leonardtown and has been a parishioner and choir member of St. Francis Xavier Church since she was a child.

“I think he’s awesome,” Russell Driscoll said. “Having the cardinal come down I think was a very blessing to our parish, I think everything was beautiful.”

Deacon Joel Carpenter gives Communion to a young parishioner at at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne during a Dec. 4 Mass. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Following the blessing, parishioners gathered in the parish hall for refreshments and cake. Father Pineda explained why it is important that the cardinal visited the church and gave the benediction.  

 “This is his church, it keeps us connected to the history of the people who were here and the present. It gives us a recognition that this is a really important part of our history,” Father Pineda said.

After celebrating a Dec. 4 Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, second from left, blesses the ghost structure of what is believed to be the first chapel in the area. At left is Deacon Joel Carpenter and to the right of the cardinal is Father Ryan Pineda, the parish’s administrator. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Paula McLeod, the volunteer coordinator for religious education at St. Francis Xavier, has been a parishioner since 1980. McLeod, like many fellow parishoners, felt that the cardinal’s blessing was very important to her community.

“I was glad he was there to do it, the ghost chapel means a lot to us as a parish… Unfortunately we did have slaves in this parish way back when, so to have something to acknowledge” them is important, McLeod said.

On Dec. 4 at the cemetery for St. Francis Xavier Parish in Newtowne, Maryland, Cardinal Wilton Gregory blesses a memorial marker honoring the unknown enslaved people who are buried in the area. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)