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HISTORY OF OUR PARISH
On March 25, 1634, Lord Baltimore’s colonists, accompanied by two Jesuit priests, landed the Ark and the Dove in what is now Southern Maryland. This began Catholicism in English-speaking America and eventually lead to the development of our parish. One of the earliest missionaries on the Eastern Shore was Father John Altham who was based on Kent Island about 1637-1640. This was the beginning of the regular ministry to Eastern Shore Catholics by the Jesuits.
Although religious tolerance was the intent and policy of the first Lord Baltimore and the Calvert family, tolerance lasted about eleven years from the date of the landing of the Ark and the Dove. In 1704, Queen Anne made some concessions which allowed Catholics to have religious services in their homes. Catholic priests were allowed to minister in private homes, but no private services or churches were allowed. This resulted in few free-standing Catholic churches prior to the American Revolution.
Missionaries did not celebrate Mass every Sunday at one location. Services might be regularly conducted in a private home at one location every third Sunday and at another location every fourth Sunday. The “parishioners” were relatively few and far between. There were several “mass stations” (private homes) in what is now Caroline County. From missionary records and letters, we see growth of a Catholic community in the Denton area from about 1780. In 1824, an acre of land in Denton was deeded to Ambrose Marechal, Archbishop of Baltimore. This ground was intended for the Denton church, now St. Elizabeth’s. The exact date when St. Elizabeth’s was completed and first used for services cannot be determined from available records. The first baptism recorded at St. Elizabeth’s was on March 1, 1831. On the basis of that record, the sesquicentennial was celebrated in 1981 at St. Elizabeth’s. In 1868, St. Elizabeth came under new diocesan jurisdiction when Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Wilmington. The new diocese included the state of Delaware – taken from the Diocese of Philadelphia – nine Eastern Shore counties of Maryland, and two Eastern Shore counties of Virginia from the Diocese of Richmond. The new jurisdiction meant a change from Jesuit staffing with secular priests. In 1888, Bishop Curtis initiated the building of a new church in Denton to replace the old, which was “too small and very dilapidated”. The old church was torn down and a new one built by November, 1890.
Bishop Alfred A. Curtis, bishop of Wilmington, bought lots on Central Avenue in Ridgely on November 17, 1893 as a site for a church. Three years later, on July 15, 1896, the church was solemnly dedicated to the honor of St Benedict by Bishop Curtis. Father Bermingham, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Cordova delivered the homily and conducted Benediction. Before the church was built in Ridgely, Mass was celebrated uptown in McShane’s Hall. Previously, parishioners attended either St. Elizabeth’s in Denton or St. Joseph’s in Cordova.
The Benedictine Sisters came to St. Gertrude’s Priory at “The Plaines” in May of 1887 and became an important part of St. Benedict’s parish. The priest would vest at the convent and then travel with the sisters to St. Benedict’s by horse and buggy for Mass. The Sisters taught Sunday School to the children of the parish for many years.
Father Ferdinand Wolf served the parish until 1914, and was succeeded by Father Maurice Cotter. One of Fr. Cotter’s first steps as pastor was to build the rectory in Ridgely. Ridgely was chosen because it had a railroad service. A front entrance was built for the Church in 1925. That same year a tower and bell were installed, a new altar was purchased and the sacristy was constructed. The cost of St. Benedict’s Church was $2,750, plus an additional $10 for the rods to support the walls. Bishop Curtis himself paid $2,265. The remaining amount was collected from the parishioners.
In 1998, St. Elizabeth’s, because of its historical background, was one of the thirteen Churches throughout the Diocese of Wilmington to be designated a Jubilee 2000 pilgrimage site. That year also marked the culmination of a two-year Building Expansion Program, which provided for renovation of the existing social hall and the addition of an educational center. The complex and administrative facilities include ten classrooms, library/resource center, conference room, a chapel and parish offices.
In 2002, the parish participated in the Diocese of Wilmington’s Bringing the Vision to Life Capital Campaign. Through the parish portion of funds raised through this campaign, the parish has undertaken numerous projects that will enrich parish life and ministries for many years to come.
In 2011, St. Benedict Church was re-furbished which entailed painting the entire church, re-furbishing the tabernacle, re-finishing, staining and sealing the wood floors, the installation of new carpeting and an overall cleaning of all woodwork and liturgical items in the church.