Details

  • DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2009)
  • Intrinsic QualitiesHistoric
  • LocationMD
  • Length195 miles
Byway Visitor Information
Southern Maryland Heritage Area
Statewide Byway Partners
Maryland Byways Foldable Map - Download
Maryland Office of Tourism Development
Much as it looked like when the church was founded in 1641
Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects, P.C. Photo

Overview

Follow the paths of Maryland’s first English colonists, drawn to the new world where new ideals of religious freedom might take hold. Follow along a series of historic sites, including many early religious communities such as the Mt. Carmel Monastery, as travelers discover the meaning of religious freedom. Explore the expansive living-history museum and archaeology site of Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capital, known as “the birthplace of religious toleration in North America.”

Local Byway Partners

Story of the Byway

To board a tiny ship and set sail across the broad unknown of the Atlantic, Maryland’s first English colonists must surely have been drawn by something magnificent, and indeed, they were. For these brave souls, Maryland was a new world where new ideals might take hold. They gave up not just their old lives, but their whole known world to build a new home on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. In Historic St. Mary’s City, “the birthplace of religious toleration in North America,” they would build the foundation of American freedom. Today, visitors can follow in the wake of these pioneers through a tidewater land in places unspoiled by the winds of time along the Religious Freedom Byway. This route is also part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Loop and visits places to enjoy and explore the bay. Visitors will begin on the Port Tobacco Loop, originally a Potapoco Indian village where Jesuit Father Andrew White established a missionary outpost. Visitors can explore the one-room schoolhouse built in 1872 and tour the Port Tobacco Courthouse, now a museum containing tobacco exhibits and archaeological finds.

As visitors continue west, the route passes the Christ Church Durham Parish. Though the parish dates to 1692, the current brick structure was constructed in the 1730s. They will then stop at Smallwood State Park,which houses the estate of Gen. William Smallwood, a Revolutionary War hero and the fourth governor of Maryland. There is also a marina and excellent fishing opportunities. Numerous national bass-fishing competitions have been held here. Freshwater fishing is available on a 23-acre lake inside the Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area. Then, as visitors head back to Port Tobacco, they should be sure to stop by the Mt. Carmel Monastery, which was established in 1790 as America’s first religious community for women. The last stop on this portion of the byway is the 322-acre Thomas Stone National Historic Site, which is also part of an 830-mile Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail that stretches between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands. Visitors should take a guided plantation tour to learn about Stone, who was one of four signers of the Declaration of Independence to hail from Maryland. Visitors will then head south toward Chapel Point to visit the oldest continuously serving Catholic parish in the nation, St. Ignatius Catholic Church, which was established by the Jesuits in 1641. Nearby is St. Thomas Manor, which was constructed a century later and is the oldest Jesuit residence in the world still in use.

Visitors will travel east through Zekiah Swamp Natural Environment Area to reach Chaptico, a port town that was occupied by the British during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Christ Episcopal Church, King and Queen Parish, was built here in 1736 on land donated by Francis Scott Key’s grandfather. The church is open to the public for tours, and visitors are encouraged to enjoy the annual strawberry and fall festivals. Branching off the main byway, visitors will head south to Coltons Point and the St. Clement’s Island Museum, which features exhibits on Maryland’s early history and serves as a launching point for water taxi rides to the island itself. St. Clement’s Island is where Father White celebrated the first Roman Catholic Mass in the colonies. Today, the island is a state park on which a 40-foot-tall cross honors those first colonists who, in 1634, conceptualized the separation of church and state.

Continuing past St. Francis Xavier Church, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the state, visitors enter the heart of Leonardtow, where they can visit both the Old Jail Museum, a tourist information center that also contains early Maryland artifacts, and Tudor Hall, a 250-year-old Colonial House now operated by the St. Mary’s County historical society. The next stop is St. George’s Episcopal Church which has held services since 1638, making it the oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland. Visitors will continue south to visit Piney Point, the site of the Piney Point Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse on the Potomac River. From there, visitors can make their way to St. Mary's College of Maryland, a female seminary that was established in 1840, which now is a co-educational state college and hosts a weekly summer concert series. Probably the most visited destination on this byway is Historic St Mary’s City, an expansive living-history museum and archaeology site. Serving as Maryland’s first capital from 1634 to 1695, St. Mary’s City was the fourth permanent settlement in America and site of the first Catholic chapel in the colonies. Exhibits include a reconstructed 17th-century State House, a tobacco plantation, an Indian hamlet and a replica of the Maryland Dove, one of the two square-rigged ships that brought the first settlers to Maryland.

Heading toward the Chesapeake Bay, visitors can see several lighthouses and visit Point Lookout State Park, which offers beaches on the Chesapeake Bay, a boat launch, fishing areas and campgrounds. But there’s another side to this picturesque peninsula — during the Civil War, Point Lookout served as a notorious prison camp where more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers died. Ghost stories abound, bringing a haunting conclusion to this spiritual journey.

Driving Directions

The byway begins in Port Tobacco. Visitors will first travel around the Nanjemoy Loop, which will return them to Port Tobacco and will pass by the Mt. Carmel Monastery. They will then head south using MD 234 and MD 238 through Chapel Point, Chaptico, and Colton’s Point. From Colton’s Point, visitors will take a water taxi ride to St. Clement’s Island.

Points of Interest

  • Mt. Carmel Monastery

    The first Carmelite Monastery in the United States, Mount Carmel was established in 1790 by Mother Bernardina Matthews, her two nieces, Sister Mary Aloysia and Sister Mary Eleanora, and Sister Clare Joseph.

  • Port Tobacco Courthouse

    The reconstructed 1819 courthouse is a museum containing tobacco and Civil War exhibits and archaeological finds on site.

  • St. Clement's Island State Park

    In 1634, the first English settlers to arrive in Maryland landed here. The 40-acre park is dedicated to them. Visitors will enjoy fishing, hiking, and viewing Blackistone Lighthouse.

Itinerary

  • The Port Tobacco Loop

    The byway begins in Port Tobacco, originally a Potapoco Indian village where Jesuit Father Andrew White established a missionary outpost. Visit the one-room schoolhouse built in 1872 and tour the Port Tobacco Courthouse, now a museum containing tobacco exhibits and archaeological finds.

    Continue west, stopping at the Christ Church Durham Parish. Though the parish dates to 1692, the current brick structure was constructed in the 1730s. Next is Smallwood State Park, which houses the estate of Gen. William Smallwood, a Revolutionary War hero and the fourth governor of Maryland. There is also a marina and excellent fishing opportunities. Numerous national bass-fishing competitions have been held here. This is also an excellent place to stop for lunch.

    Freshwater fishing is available on a 23-acre lake inside the Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area. Then, as you head back to Port Tobacco, be sure to stop by the Mt. Carmel Monastery, which was established in 1790 as America’s first religious community for women.

    The last stop on this portion of the byway is the 322-acre Thomas Stone National Historic Site, which is also part of an 830-mile Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail that stretches between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands. Take a guided plantation tour to learn about Stone, who was one of four signers of the Declaration of Independence to hail from Maryland.

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