By Sarah McCarthy
PORT TOBACCO, Md. –- Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Port Tobacco River in southern Maryland, St. Ignatius Church stands out against a backdrop of colorful autumn trees and vacant farmland. The large red brick building, adorned by a white steeple, has occupied this spot for more than 200 years.
Founded in 1641 by an English Jesuit missionary, Father Andrew White, St. Ignatius bears the distinction of being the oldest continuously active parish in the U.S.
The parish cemetery, situated on the sloping hillside in front of the church, holds tombstones dating back to the 19th century, while the current church building was erected in 1798. During a recent visit by a Catholic News Service reporter and photographer to the historical site, Jesuit Father Tom Clifford, who became the pastor of St. Ignatius in 2013, discussed the church’s history and explained the significance of Catholic cemeteries.
“People today choose … a Catholic cemetery because it’s their parish cemetery … and they have a sense of their belonging, which of course is part of what being buried in a Catholic cemetery is about,” he said. “It’s belonging, in a kind of tangible, visible way, to the communion of saints, to those who are living and deceased, who all believe in Christ.”
When Father White and other Jesuit priests established the parish in the 17th century, their goal was to establish an English colony and convert the Potobac Indians who lived on the land. While the original church was placed right on the riverbank, it was subsequently moved upward to avoid flooding. The church’s elevation, Father Clifford said, lends a spiritual significance to its mission.
“In some sense, having the church at the top of the hill … is beautiful, but it also shows the connection of the graves and those who are buried in them to the church and ultimately to God.”
Traditionally, church cemeteries were used to bury parishioners whose loved ones did not have their own private plots. Today, only registered parishioners of St. Ignatius are allowed to be buried in the cemetery. Father Clifford said this tradition allows people to maintain a connection to their deceased relatives.
“They can visit the graves and pray for those who are deceased but, at the same time, also have a sense of their history as a family and the presence of their ancestors to them in prayer as well,” he said. “The cemetery is kind of a permanent extension of … showing our connection, even in death, to the new life of Christ and the communion of saints.”
Cemeteries, Father Clifford said, serve living relatives more than they do the deceased.
“A person’s eternal life doesn’t depend on there being a stone or fresh flowers every week,” he said. “The cemeteries indicate a reality … that there was a real person who died and was buried here and who trusted in the Lord then as we trust in the Lord now.”
Father Clifford also spoke about All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day and how those celebrations coincide with the cemetery’s purpose of establishing a connection between individuals who have achieved salvation and people still on earth.
“What we say of people who are the souls in purgatory being prayed for on the feast of All Souls’ (is) they are among those who are saved,” he said. “For a while we’re praying for them, that they might be speeded onto their eternal reward, and then ultimately they’re praying for us.”
“All Saints’ Day, of course, also honors those who are examples,” Father Clifford continued. “And that’s the idea that they’re praying for us and are with us and that they are honored because of what they have done in being faithful to the Gospel.”
Today, Father Clifford said he thinks people view the afterlife with uncertainty, and therefore try to perpetuate the lives of the deceased in the form of physical tributes.
“I think in the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve seen a lot of memorials pop up instantly; whether it’s a tragic death or a famous person’s death, we’ll find these street corner piles of stuffed animals and flowers and so on,” he said. “I hear a lot about people wanting to keep the deceased alive in some way. Well, we would say, they are already alive. There is a continuity between life and death; (the deceased) are just not visible to us.”
Father Clifford emphasized the importance of believing in the Resurrection and called it “the real test of faith” for Christians.
“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, I believe in God,’ because God could be almost anything depending on how you define God,” he said. “But to say, ‘God keeps me alive in eternity’ … that’s much more, I think, a real statement of faith and trust in God.”