On one of the highest sites in Prince George’s County on Annapolis Road between Bladensburg and Annapolis is situated a small church – Sacred Heart Chapel. Its history goes back to the mid 18th century. The hill and many surrounding acres were a bequest of James Carroll, cousin of Charles Carroll of Annapolis, to George Thorold, a Jesuit priest. Upon the death of James Carroll in 1729, George Thorold and his fellow Jesuits took possession of the land and developed a farm, which they called White Marsh Plantation. Known also as the Mission of St. Francis Borgia, it was one of the early Catholic Jesuit Missions in the English colonies. White Marsh is an historic place in more ways than one. It was the center of Catholic life in Prince George’s County. The Fathers who resided there made missionary excursions not only to various locations in that county but also to Annapolis, Baltimore, Doughoregan Manor and areas of the present day District of Columbia.
It is important to note that for almost one hundred years prior to the American Revolution, harsh anti-Catholic laws were in effect in the English province of Maryland. Among other things, Catholics could not hold public office, priests were forbidden to hold religious services in public and religious organizations were barred from inheriting or purchasing land. The one glimmer of hope quickly taken advantage of was permission to build private chapels. Catholics who did own land seized this opportunity to build chapels adjoining their manor houses. The sacristy and sanctuary of the present Chapel
, c., 1741, perhaps abutted one of these manor houses. During this period, the Jesuit Fathers of White Marsh, with the help of indentured and slave labor worked the plantation as private citizens and served the small but growing Catholic communities in Prince George’s and nearby counties.
Following the Revolutionary War the Jesuit Fathers under the leadership of John Carroll, S.J.
called several meetings of the clergy for the purpose of organizing the Catholic Church in America. The meetings, called the General Chapters, the first of which took place in 1783, were held at White Marsh Plantation. Among other things, deliberations of the General Chapters led to the appointment of John Carroll by the Vatican as Prefect Apostolic, making him superior of the missionary church in the thirteen states, and to the first plans for Georgetown University. Also at White Marsh, the priests of the new nation elected John Carroll as the first American bishop on May 18,1789.
at Sacred Heart goes back to the 1700’s. The first recorded date of a burial is in the very early 1800’s. Slaves who worked the plantation were probably buried there in the very early years.
A Novitiate for young men studying for the priesthood was moved from Georgetown to Whitemarsh in 1814 where it remained for twenty years. A famous missionary who studied at White Marsh as a novice was Pierre De Smet
A fire broke out in the priest house (rectory
) on the night of May 15, 1853. The fire destroyed the priest house, the church and the vacant old Novitiate building. The chapel was rebuilt in 1856. By 1874 the priest house was restored and a large addition was added to the front of the building. The addition to the chapel of a bell tower
was completed in 1876.
After Pope Pius declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception 1854, and the apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858, a shrine in honor of Mary was built at White Marsh. During the early years the shrine was the focus of a number of pilgrimages but over time became overgrown and deteriorated. The shrine was re-discovered in the mid 20th century and a restoration was undertaken by the Order of the Alhambra in 1957. Known as the grotto of Our Lady of Rock Springs
, the shrine is located at the end of the road leading from the rear of the main church, beyond the outdoor Stations of the Cross
The annual parish picnic was a great day at Sacred Heart as far back as the late 1800’s. It was the social event of the year and the largest source of revenue for the mission. In the early years the food was donated by the families of the parish who lived on the surrounding farms and prepared in the rectory kitchen. Both white and African-American families came to the picnic but their tables were set apart from each other. There were dancing and carnival attractions. Ice cream and soft drinks were sold. People came by horse buggy from Collington Station in the early years – later by bus. After the new church was built in 1969 the current Labor Day Fest began. A new tradition of a family picnic, to be held in June on or about the Feast of the Sacred Heart, began in 2001.
The small town of Bowie developed with the coming of the railroad and the Church of the Ascension was built near the train line in 1893 to accommodate the people. In 1903 Sacred Heart became a mission of Ascension and the Fathers of White Marsh moved
to a residence near Ascension church.
When the large estate of Belair was sold for development about 1958 there was a need for a new Catholic church. St. Pius X was established on Annapolis Road in 1962. From 1962 to 1965 Sacred Heart became a mission of St. Pius X. On May 30, 1965 with the continued growth of the new development, the mission of Sacred Heart was elevated to full status as a parish of the Washington Archdiocese. Father John A Lubey was appointed as the first pastor. A new Church of the Sacred Heart
was built and dedicated on October 26, 1969. For a few years Sacred Heart, Bowie was known at the same time as the oldest and newest parish of the Archdiocese.
In May 1989 the Bicentennial of John Carroll’s election as first Bishop of the Catholic Church in the United States was celebrated on the hill at Sacred Heart. Clergy, parishioners and former parishioners came from far and wide to celebrate Mass and give thanks for all that had taken place at this historic shrine.
For over two hundred and fifty years the wooded grounds upon which our parish facilities rest have echoed with hymns of glory and praise to our God. They have provided the tranquil setting for generations of dedicated clergy and laity to join in worship and prayer. To paraphrase the words of Pastor Emeritus Monsignor John F. Hogan, it is our most fervent hope that awareness of the rich heritage entrusted to us will kindle in our hearts a deep determination to keep our Catholic faith alive and dynamic and to pass it on to future generations.