Lord Baltimore, who founded the colony of Maryland, first brought the Roman Catholic faith to this area in 1634 with the help of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits .
During the mid-1700s, the Jesuits were largely responsible for carrying that faith inland from the shoreline territories. Because Roman Catholics were forbidden by the Crown’s Penal Laws to build churches or practice their religion openly, the first worship space was established in the spring of 1763 in Frederick in a small brick home on the north side of Second Street owned by John Carey. The Penal Laws were repealed in 1776, and it wasn’t long before the Roman Catholic community outgrew the small home chapel.
In 1789, Pope Pius VI created the first Roman Catholic Diocese in the United States, the Diocese of Baltimore. During the Jesuit suppression which began in 1773, Rev. John DuBois was named pastor for the area that included all Catholics from Frederick, Maryland, to Saint Louis, Missouri. He laid the cornerstone for the first St. John Church on the north side of Second Street; it bore the inscription: “The first stone of St. John Catholic Church was laid by Rev. John DuBois on the 15th day of May, 1800.” The stone, unearthed in 1904 in what is now Chapel Alley, sits in the plaza just to the right of the front doors. Our pastor, Fr. Dubois went on to found Mt. St. Mary’s College and Seminary in 1808. On May 23, 1826 Fr. Dubois was named the Third Bishop of New York.
Rev. John McElroy, S.J., became the pastor of St. John in 1822. The decision was made to tear down the old church and rebuild on the south side of Second Street. Work began in 1833 on what was to be the largest parish church in the United States at that time. On April 26, 1837, St. John the Evangelist became the first consecrated Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The Jesuits resumed leadership of the parish in 1814 when their suppression was lifted. They staffed St. John the Evangelist until 1902 when the Jesuit Novitiate located on Second Street across the street from the current Church, relocated to New York. In total the Jesuits had a presence in Frederick for 144 years.
The Church Building
The style of the church is Grecian ionic, and the floor plan is that of a simple Latin cross, 104 feet long by 94 feet wide. The original church had a copper roof which used more then 13,237 lbs. of copper, but it was eventually replaced because of incessant leaking. On the outside of the building, above the doorway, is an 11-foot statue of St. John the Evangelist. To his left is a Eagle – typically associated with St. John – and on each side he is flanked by an angel holding an inscribed tablet. The inscriptions read, “in principio erat verbum” (in the beginning was the Word) and “et verbum caro factum est” (and the Word became flesh), which can be found in the prologue of the Gospel of John.
The Ascension painting by Baraldi in the center of the ceiling was not in the original church, but was completed for the 75th anniversary of the church’s consecration in 1912. Originally that area, surrounded by 6 cherubs, had been adorned with rays of glory bearing the inscription IHS. The 17-foot-high windows are each topped with the bust of St. John created by Mr. Pettrick. The high altar was designed by Mr. Bevan and Mr. Baughman of Baltimore and is made of Egyptian and Italian marble. The top part of the tabernacle has an interesting history. It was in the United States on speculation and originally held a small statue of Benjamin Franklin. It was the perfect addition to the existing tabernacle, and the image of Franklin was replaced by one of the crucified Christ.
The Stations of the Cross were given to Fr. McElroy by Rt. Rev. Bishop Byrne of Little Rock in 1845. The painting of the Crucifixion, by Pietro Gugliardi, was hung in 1843. Rev. Fr. Prov. Dzierozinski paid $240 for the painting and gave it to the parish.
In 1857 the square bell tower, 145 feet high, was completed. It is surmounted by three one-story telescoping sections and topped by a gold dome and cross. While the bells originally rang every hour, they now only ring the Angelus three times a day and summon worshipers to the celebration of Mass. The tower makes Saint John Church the tallest building in the city.
St. John, along with many other churches in Frederick, was used during the Civil War for purposes other than worship. Some churches served as makeshift hospitals (with planks laid over the pews for beds), but because of the height of its windows, St John held jailed Confederate soldiers. During an organ refurbishment, graffiti was discovered in the plaster behind the organ pipes, etched by soldiers held in the choir loft.
In April of 2013, St. John the Evangelist celebrated its 250th Anniversary, with a Solemn Anniversary Mass. The parish currently serves over 3,000 households.