St. Peter’s Church began in 1700 as a simple mission church on the Upper Zacchia Swamp. Nothing more than a cabin, the first structure was located a mile south of our current site and was used by missionaries who traveled on horseback to minister to the needs of the faithful. When the priest arrived, a bell was rung long and loud so that Catholics for miles around would be notified of his presence. He would stay a short time, hear confessions, celebrate Mass, perform marriages and baptisms and otherwise help parishioners any way he could.
In 1704 an anti-popery law made it illegal for Catholics to practice their religion openly and Catholic churches were closed. Rewards were offered for the capture of priests celebrating Mass. To avoid capture, priests rode about disguised as peddlers. They fashioned “saddle chalices” that could be arranged to look like a bell that hung from the sides of their horses. Today, a saddle chalice is in St. Thomas Manor’s collection at Chapel Point.
Religious persecution against Catholics continued until the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Maryland’s constitution in 1776, when religious freedom was granted to her citizens. In 1789, Pope Pius VI established the first Roman Catholic diocese in America, the See of Baltimore. It is believed that in 1792 Bishop John Carroll, first Bishop of Baltimore, changed the name of the little mission in Upper Zacchia from St. Ignatius to St. Peter’s Church.
In 1789 Bishop John Carroll sent Father John B. David to St. Peter’s who served as pastor until 1805 before heading West to Kentucky. Over the next decades, our parish was served by a succession of priests. In 1825 a loyal parishioner, Thomas Reeves, died leaving his property to St. Peter’s Church. And in 1860 a new church was erected with bell tower and steeple where our church stands today. However, the Civil War and its aftermath took its toll on the parish. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that St. Peter’s started on its path to become the diverse parish community we enjoy today.
In 1894 Father Narcisse Martin, S.S, professor and theologian asked to come to St. Peter’s. Here he served as our pastor for 29 years until his death in 1923 at age 78. There is little reason to think that in 1894 a priest with the credentials of Father Martin would be found in a parish like St. Peter’s. It had a small congregation dispersed over a large area, requiring long buggy rides. It was poor and had few assets beyond the overgrown, run-down farm on which the church building stood. While Father Martin’s career as a Sulpician professor and theologian began in France, he later emigrated to Canada, where he became a noted professor at the Grand Seminary in Montreal. It was there that he authored a Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament, a highly regarded book published in 1882. Not long after its publication, Father Martin left Canada and arrived in Baltimore at St. Mary’s Seminary. After three years of teaching, Father Martin asked to be assigned as Chaplain of St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, a facility that served the poor and indigent. And, after nine years at St. Agnes, asked to be transferred to St. Peter’s Parish in Charles County, a train ride and a world away from his life in Baltimore.
Father Martin’s zeal was untiring. He devoted all of his time and much of his own money to bringing the people of his parish to God. He was dedicated to seeing that sacraments were administered, regardless of time, place or weather. He rarely left the parish for fear that his parishioners would think he might not return and he devoted the rest of his life to the spiritual well-being of the people – African-American, Native American, and White alike. Fr. Martin laid the foundation for our church as we know it today.
Throughout its three centuries, St. Peter’s has met challenges presented by man and nature, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes nobly; but always with honesty and courage. In 1956, under the leadership of another long-serving pastor, Fr. Henry Sank, St. Peter’s School was established as the first Charles County Catholic school that had never been segregated. And in 1971, our present church building was erected by pastor Fr. Raymond Fanning on the spot of the original church 100 years before. At St. Peter’s we honor and respect our humble rural beginnings. We acknowledge with gratitude the legacy of the men and women whose labor and faith ensured St. Peter’s existence for more than 300 years. Together we celebrate our diversity, our prosperity in our faith, and our abiding friendship with Jesus Christ.