Three men of the Carroll family of Maryland — Charles and his cousins Daniel and John — played vital roles in the birth of American independence and in the establishment of the Catholic Church in the United States. 

In 1776, in the 13 American colonies, there were no Catholic bishops, no nuns, no seminaries, no parochial schools, no Catholic charitable institutions of any kind. There were two parish churches, St. Mary and St. Joseph, both located in Philadelphia. There were a tiny handful of Catholic missions in Pennsylvania (the only colony that permitted Catholics to practice their religion freely), and a handful of private chapels on the plantations of well-to-do Catholics in Maryland. Elsewhere in the colonies the Mass and the sacraments were banned, and a Catholic priest, if arrested, could be executed. The Carrolls believed that once America was free from the English king, a host of related freedoms would follow, including freedom of conscience. 

An outlawed faith 

The Carroll family settled in Maryland in 1688, 54 years after the colony had been founded in 1634 as a refuge for Catholics. By the time they arrived, the government of Maryland was in the hands of Protestants who outlawed the public practice of the Faith. Catholic priests wore secular dress and pretended to be country gentlemen or private tutors. Catholic families assembled for Mass in chapels in private homes. Catholic young women who were called to the religious life left their homes forever to enter convents of English-speaking nuns in France or Belgium. Catholic young men who wished to enter the priesthood or receive a university education sailed to the English Jesuit College at St. Omer in France. Charles Carroll (grandson of the settler) and his two cousins, Daniel (a future signer of the U.S. Constitution) and John (who would be the first Catholic bishop in the United States) all studied at St. Omer. 

In 1765, when 28-year-old Charles returned home from his studies in Europe, his father presented him with one of the family estates, Carrollton Manor, a property that covered 10,000 acres. Overnight, Charles Carroll was one of the wealthiest men in Maryland, if not America. 

Shaping a young nation 

During the 1760s and 1770s, all three Carroll cousins joined the protest against unjust British taxes. In 1776, Charles was sent to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. As he was the only Catholic in Congress, he was also the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. He and his cousin, John Carroll, now a priest, were invited to join Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase on a diplomatic mission to Quebec to persuade French Canadian Catholics to support the American Revolution. The mission failed: Even the presence of two Carrolls could not convince the French Canadians that America had moderated its deep-seated animosity toward Catholics. 

In the late 1770s and 1780s, Charles and Daniel Carroll both served in Maryland’s new state senate. Daniel Carroll was later a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and one of two Catholic signers of the United States Constitution (the other was Thomas Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania). In 1789, Charles Carroll was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1791, George Washington named Daniel Carroll to a three-man panel to plan the new national capital at what is now Washington, D.C. 

Charles Carroll retired from public life in 1800. He died in 1832, at 95 years of age, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Daniel Carroll died in 1796; during his final years he had been a generous benefactor of the Catholic Church in the United States and especially charitable to the first wave of Irish immigrants who arrived in America in the 1790s. 

America’s first bishop 

John Carroll was ordained a priest in Liege, Belgium, in 1761. When he returned home to Maryland in 1774, his brother, Daniel, built a chapel on the family estate at Rock Creek that became the “parish” for Catholics in the neighborhood. In 1789, Pope Pius VI named Father John Carroll bishop of Baltimore — a diocese that covered the entire United States, including the territories stretching westward from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. 

Immediately Bishop Carroll went to work to lay the foundation for Catholic life in America. In 1791, he founded St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and saw the first student enroll at Georgetown College. In 1799, he approved a school for girls operated by the Visitation nuns in Georgetown.  

Urged on by the bishop, the Dominicans founded a college in Kentucky in 1805, and the Sulpicians founded Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. In 1806, Bishop Carroll hired architect Benjamin Latrobe to build a cathedral in Baltimore — the first in the United States. Bishop Carroll gave his support to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s new community of teaching sisters and the parish school they opened in Emmitsburg in 1809. 

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Bishop Carroll’s diocese extended across the immense new territory. It was more than one man could administer, so in 1808 the Holy See named Carroll archbishop of Baltimore and created four new dioceses — New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Ky. 

It was Archbishop Carroll’s dream to see the Catholic faith firmly rooted in America and to make the Church in the United States self-sustaining. He defended the American principle of the separation of church and state at a time when many Catholic churchmen in Europe regarded the notion with suspicion. At the same time he was no idealist; he understood that Catholics were a minority in America and that anti-Catholicism was pervasive in American society. For the time being, he urged Catholics to restrict their worship to church and home; once he rebuked a parish priest for leading a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Baltimore because he feared it would antagonize Protestants and perhaps even provoke a riot in which the Blessed Sacrament might be profaned. 

In 1791, one year after his consecration as bishop, John Carroll composed a lengthy prayer, imploring God’s blessing and inspiration upon the United States. It reads in part: “We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the president of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality” (See full prayer on Page 8).

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95) and “America’s Great (and Not So Great) Catholic Moments Perpetual Calendar” (OSV, $12.95).

Bishop Carroll's Report to Rome (sidebar)

In March 1785 Bishop John Carroll wrote to Cardinal Leonardo Antonelli, prefect of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, outlining the condition of the Catholic Church in the United States. 

“There are in Maryland about 15,800 Catholics; of these there are about 9,000 freemen, adults or over twelve years of age; children under that age, about 3,000; and above that number of slaves of all ages of African origin, called negroes. There are in Pennsylvania about 7,000, very few of whom are negroes. ... There are not more than 200 in Virginia who are visited four or five times a year by a priest. ... In the State of New York I hear that there are at least 1,500. (Would that some spiritual succor could be afforded them!) 

“There are 19 priests in Maryland and five in Pennsylvania. Of these two are more than 70 years old, and three others very near that age: and they are consequently almost entirely unfit to undergo the hardships without which this Vineyard of the Lord cannot be cultivated.”