ST. JOHN FRANCIS REGIS PARISH
Tradition holds that the first church named in honor of St. John Francis Regis located in what is now Hollywood, Maryland, was built in 1690. This first church structure was what we would consider a kind of log cabin with clay and mortar daubed between the logs to keep out the elements. This small, rustic house of God rested on a foundation of fieldstones and bricks placed at the four corners of the building. It was situated by an artesian spring, about 180 yards to the northeast of the present church.
It is most likely that the construction of this first St John’s was commissioned by Fr. Francis Pennington, S.J., the Superior for the Maryland Missions of the Society of Jesus at that time. The Jesuits built and staffed all of the Catholic churches in the province as part of their missionary activities. Headquartered in Newton, they persevered in their pastoral duties. However, this became increasingly difficult after the Protestant Rebellion in the province in 1689. The priests and the faithful were faced with religious persecution by the English Royal Governor and his Assembly in Annapolis, which had replaced the Calverts as the rulers of Maryland. Our lack of detailed records of the Catholic Church in Maryland in that era is certainly due to this oppression.
There is one written record of that time which probably does refer to the first St. John's Church. The report of the Sheriff of St. Mary’s County to the Royal Governor on May 24, 1698 described “1 Wooden Chapel beyond Petaxant Road, near Mr. Hayward’s”. It is likely that this chapel was the original St. John’s.
The first church building served the parish for almost one hundred years. The growth of the parish and the condition of the original church led the Jesuits in Newton, then under the leadership of Fr. James Walton, S.J., to undertake the building of the second St John’s. The new church was constructed around 1780, on a parcel of land about 100 yards to the west of the first church. The new building was certainly much larger than the original, and the quality of the building materials and the construction were similarly a great improvement over the original church. In what would be a tradition of St. John’s, the pastor and the members of the parish took the work of designing and building the church. The dimensions for this building were 40’x30’x12’. The timbers and boards were sawed, hewn, or riven. The foundation was formed of tightly packed stones brought by farmers from their fields. This foundation was so well made that it outlasted the second church itself.
Documented references to St. John’s during that time add to our picture of the second church building, including continuing enhancements in its appearance. Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore, on a diocesan visit to the parishes of Southern Maryland in 1818, noted in his diary on September 23rd his imparting of Confirmation to 61 people at St. John’s. He describes the church as being “… formed of two framed houses brought together, old and badly joined”. However, improvements were being made. In her will of October 21, 1821, Martha Abell stipulated “…the rest of my estate to be sold… and applied towards finishing and decorating the new chapel called St. John Francis Regis.” When Archbishop Marechal visited St. John’s again on June 3, 1824, he appeared to have a more favorable impression of the building. His diary recorded, “Went to St John’s at 10 o’c. Confirmed 137 persons. The chapel is a frame building, not plastered. When completed will be sufficiently large and fine.”
We also have an insight into the spiritual life of the parish in the second church at that time, thanks to the record of Fr. Stephen Dubuisson, S.J., who was one of the priests conducting a Jubilee Mission at St. John’s in January of 1830. He writes, ‘St John’s can be said to be in the woods. The parish is poor, but populous. The few well-to-do members of the congregation would have to defray all the expense of completing and ornamenting this church. The missionaries were lodged in different houses, some of them at a distance of five or six miles from the church. They set off before daybreak to go and say Mass, and to be on hand at an early hour to hear confessions, but they always found quite a number of the faithful here beforehand, waiting for their coming. The persevering attendance of the people at the exercise was wonderful. After the last Mass and sermon, the labors of the confessional again occupied us, and dinner was generally deferred till the end of the day. Words cannot express the consolation that filled my soul when I was brought face to face with the living love for our holy religion. They were very attentive in providing for our wants; refreshments were brought without fail to the sacristy, and it is to be regretted that their care and hospitality deprived us in great measure of our proper amount of mortification. With what lively interest did they inspire us as they thronged about the confessional, which were nothing more than an angle in some corner of the church, screened off with counterpanes hung around. The penitent knelt upon the floor, and both penitent and priest were exposed to the cold which at times was quite sharp.”
Around 1875, a fifteen-foot addition was built at the west end of the church to provide more seating for the congregation. Two galleries were also added to the sides of the church above the windows, and spanning the length of the church on each side. A bell tower was erected at the east end of the building behind the sacristy and the priest’s rooms. These were the last recorded major improvements to the second church.
At the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear that the population of St. John’s parish had outgrown the second church. Furthermore, additional space was needed immediately outside the church to accommodate the horses and buggies increasingly being used to transport the faithful to services at St. John’s.
Although funding a new church building would prove difficult for the parish, a beginning for the third and current St. John's was made through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Yates, who donated thirteen acres of land just to the south of the old church cemetery as a site for its construction. The foundation was to be located on a slightly elevated spot, allowing for drainage on all sides.
Construction of the new church, including planning and building, would take almost two years to complete. Under the guidance of Fr. Charles K. Jenkins, S.J., then Superior of the Jesuits at Leonardtown, and that of Fr. William J. Richley, S.J., the project was started in 1896. Joseph Milburn of Leonardtown was given the commission to build the new St. John’s Church. He was considered to be one of the best framers of wood structures in the county, and he had recently built the new Sacred Heart Church in Bushwood. All the oak and pine timbers for the building, which came from the forest of the Townsend Estates a few miles south of Leonardtown, were cut at a modern sawmill. The lumber was cut from old, ripe trees, and was considered to be the best material used in any frame church building in the county.
The original estimated cost of the building was four thousand dollars. Although the actual cost would be considerably higher, even four thousand dollars was an enormous amount for the parish. However, through the perseverance and sacrifice of Fr. Richley and the people of St. John’s, construction of the new church proceeded.
With a large assembly of parishioners, neighbors, and friends in attendance, the newest St. John’s Church was dedicated on July 17, 1898, by Bishop Alfred A. Curtis on behalf of Cardinal Gibbons. The Bishop delivered a sermon on the significance of this new house of God, and expressed the Cardinal’s gratitude for the cooperation and generous assistance of the parish in this endeavor. The old church building continued to serve the parish as a church hall well into the twentieth century, until its deteriorating condition made it a hazard to children in the community. This forced Fr. Johnson, then pastor of St. John’s, to have it demolished.
Shortly after the day of dedication, on August 3, 1898, a major windstorm, accompanied by heavy hail, swept across St. Mary’s County and did considerable damage to the new church. Most of the ceiling plaster was knocked down, and much of the church furniture consequently ruined. The ceiling was not replastered; instead, a make-shift wood frame was nailed to the studding over the remaining original plaster. It was then covered with a tin ceiling that lasted for about a quarter of a century.
In November 1905, Fr. Clement S. Lancaster, S.J., who served as pastor at St. John’s from 1904 to 1906, arranged for the installation of nineteen stained glass windows in the new church. The designs of the windows showed a variety of geometrical designs and a number of different religious symbols, including the Alpha and Omega, Chalice and Host, INRI as inscribed over the cross of Christ, a crown and cross, the Sacred Heart bound with thorns, and roses, among others.
On September 28, 1922, Father Joseph M. Johnson, S.J. arrived as the new pastor of St John’s Church. Fr. Johnson was a native of St. Mary’s County, coming originally from Morganza, Maryland. Unlike his predecessors, who had served as pastor for only one or two years, Fr. Johnson’s tenure would last for 31 years. His influence would be significant and enduring.
After completing his first-priority task, the taking of a parish census, Fr. Johnson undertook the reclamation of the church grounds, which he found to be everywhere overgrown with brambles and thickets, as well as a number of dead or dying trees. Through the diligent labors of the members of the parish enlisted by Fr. Johnson, and after several years of effort, the workers had cleared seventeen acres immediately around and adjacent to the church, mainly by use of grubbing hoe and ax. Now that the grounds were cleared, Fr. Johnson and the people of St. John’s set about restoring the church’s landscape with a variety of seedlings, shrubs, and bulbs. Most of the evergreens used were donated by the Most Reverend John M. McNamara, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington and Baltimore. Altogether, about a thousand trees were planted through this effort. This project was superintended by Mr. John Cameron and Mr. Joseph Wible, who had a reputation of never losing a tree they planted. Within a few years, the new landscape was flourishing, having the look of a parkland rather than the surroundings of a simple church. Fr. Johnson reports that Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, on a visit to administer Confirmation at St. John’s, remarked that the place looked like a rich man’s estate.
In his stewardship of St. John’s, Fr. Johnson saw to the renovation of the church building proper, the interior of the church, and the physical plant of the church. He left St. John’s for reassignment in 1953. Several more Jesuits succeeded him in turn in the position of pastor until 1962, when diocesan priests from the Archdiocese of Washington began to serve St. John’s in the role of pastor.
In 1954, the first of several shrines to be built on the grounds of St. John’s was established. This was Our Lady of Grace Shrine, located just to the south of the church and adjacent to the cemetery. This shrine, to honor Our Blessed Mother in the Marian Year of 1954, was damaged by a falling tree during a severe storm in 1997, and restoration work was completed in 1998. In 1955, a grotto was dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows on the north side of the church. This grotto includes a statue of the crucified Christ with His Blessed Mother, which was a gift of St. Peter’s Church, Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1987, a shrine dedicated to St. Joseph was constructed near the northeast corner of the church. In 1998, a Memorial, in the form of a gravestone, was set up outside the southwest corner of the church to commemorate the late Mother Teresa’s opposition to the evil of abortion.
When Monsignor Martin P. Harris was assigned to St. John’s in 1970 as pastor, he, like his predecessors, initially served the parish alone as its solitary priest. He took on himself not only the spiritual duties of his ministry, but also the temporal tasks of maintaining and improving the grounds and buildings of the church. He did much of this on his own, often acting as St. John’s sole carpenter, plumber, electrician, and janitor. In 1987, he and the parishioners of St. John’s installed new ceiling fans and oak pews in the church. Vinyl siding was added to the building in 1989 and another new roof installed in 1995. New, wide concrete steps with rails were also installed at the front entrance of the church in 1997, along with new blue carpet and Marazzi tile inside the church that same year.
In the summer of 1990, the parish celebrated the 300th Anniversary of the founding of St. John’s with a variety of religious and social events. Some events throughout the year included an Opening Commemorative Mass and Reception, the replanting of several trees, the dedication of the 300th Monument to the right of the church, the formal Banquet Celebration with the Bishop and other Maryland dignitaries in attendance, a Gala Ball, and a Closing Commemorative Mass. St. John’s Church Christmas Cards, a parish picture of all the parishioners of the Opening Commemorative Mass, and a professional video capturing all the 300th Anniversary functions on tape recorded a memorable year for St. John’s.
Most recently, the parish has undertaken one of its most ambitious building efforts, that of constructing a new parish hall at the east end of the church, between the church and St. John’s school. This facility, approximately 16,000 square feet in size, provides modern and spacious accommodation for student athletic and cultural events, as well as expanded educational activities, including CCD, parish social functions, meetings and events of parish societies and organizations, among other activities.
Msgr. Harris retired from active ministry in 2004, leaving St. John’s after 34 years of invaluable and loving service. His successor and current pastor, Father Raymond Schmidt, continues Msgr. Harris’s leadership in the many parish programs and projects, especially the new parish hall. Groundbreaking for the $2.5 million hall began in the summer of 2005. St. John's was blessed to have a very special guest for the occasion. On August 5, 2005, Cardinal McCarrick led us in prayers of gratitude and protection during the construction of the Parish hall. Father Ray signed the contract to start construction on August 28, 2005.
With an enthusiastic and committed shepherd who continues the long line of great pastors at St. John’s, the faithful of the parish proudly live their rich and inspiring tradition of faith, family, and service in the modern world.
St. John's at a Glance:
1690: Founded by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits); first church built
1780: Second church dedicated
1898: Third (current) church dedicated
1905: Stained glass windows added
1962: Came under direction of the Archdiocese of Washington
1990: 300th Anniversary held
2004: Current pastor, Rev. Raymond Schmidt, installed
2006: Msgr. Harris Center completed and dedicated
2010: Current school building completed