Sitting upon one of the highest hills in Prince George’s County, about a half-hour ride from, DC you can discover a quiet and serene spiritual location with a lot of history behind it, Sacred Heart Chapel, in Bowie, MD. Sacred Heart Chapel, built by Jesuit priests in 1741, is the founding place of Catholicism in Maryland and the United States. It was built at a time when it was illegal to be Catholic. Sacred Heart Chapel is located on Annapolis Road right after the newer Church of the Sacred Heart. Take the road up the hill on your right. Adjoining the Chapel is the old White Marsh Cemetery, which has a serene beauty and unique character. The bell tower of Sacred Heart Chapel has a pentacle design window, a common Masonic symbol, though no official connection between the Masons and the Chapel is known.
The Jesuits first took possession of the land they inherited from James Carroll and developed a farm, called White Marsh Plantation, in 1729. Originally known also as the Mission of St. Francis Borgia, this was one of the earliest Catholic Jesuit Missions in the English colonies. Prior to the American Revolution there were strict anti-Catholic laws in effect in the English province of Maryland. Catholics were not allowed to hold public office. Priests were forbidden to hold public religious services and religious organizations were barred from inheriting or purchasing land.
People were allowed to build private chapels, however. Catholics who owned their own land seized this opportunity and built chapels adjacent to their manor houses. It is thought perhaps the present Chapel may have originally adjoined one of these houses.
Meetings, called the General Chapters were held at White Marsh Plantation in 1783. The purposes of these deliberations were to organize the Catholic Church in America. This led to the appointment of John Carroll by the Vatican as Prefect Apostolic, making him the Superior of the missionary church in the original thirteen states. The priests then elected John Carroll as the first American bishop at White Marsh in May 1789. A fire destroyed the church and the chapel was rebuilt in 1856. In 1874 a large addition was added to the front of the building and the bell tower was finally completed in 1876.
A shrine was built in honor of the Virgin Mary and during its early years the shrine was the focus of pilgrimages. Over the years the shrine became overgrown and greatly deteriorated. The shrine, originally called The Grotto of Our Lady of Rock Springs, is located behind the newer building, Sacred Heart Church, and was a famous pilgrimage site. In 1957 the OSMA Caravan of the Alhambra searched for the then lost Shrine and began a beautiful restoration. The Order of Alhambra is an organization whose main purpose is to identify, mark, and preserve historical Catholic locations. Now called the Grotto of Our Lady of Rock Springs, the shrine can be found at the end of a road which leads out down the hill from the rear of the newer, main church building. On your stroll down to the sacred grotto, take your time to reflect on the Stations of the Cross posted along the path.
As the once small railroad town of Bowie, MD, began to develop, the Church of the Ascension was built near the train line in 1893. In 1903 Sacred Heart Chapel, which was formally known as White Marsh Plantation and The Mission of St. Francis Borgia, became a mission of Ascension Catholic Church. When Belair Mansion and Estate were sold to Levitt for a housing development in 1958, a new need for a Catholic Church emerged. St. Pius X was built on Annapolis Road to fill this need in 1962. From 1962 to 1965 Sacred Heart became a mission of St. Pius X. Due to the continued growth of Bowie, eventually The Mission of Sacred Heart became a parish of its own in the Washington Archdiocese. The new Church of the Sacred Heart was built closer to Annapolis Road, down the hill from the original chapel, and was dedicated on October 26, 1969.