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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Holy Face Parish in Maryland

Dear friends of the Oblate Sisters,


On Easter week I had to make a trip to Washington D.C. to the Finnish Embassy to renew my passport. While travelling I made few sightseeing stops. One of them was Wheatland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the home of James Buchanan, who was President from 1857 to 1861. Since Buchanan was not married, he trusted his niece, Miss Harriet Lane, to act as his First Lady during his years in the White House. In her estate Lane made a bequest to fund a memorial to President Buchanan, which was built at a place which later would become Meridian Park in Washington D.C. President Herbert Hoover dedicated the memorial in 1930. Several hundred people were on hand to witness the unveiling and to hear President Hoover deliver a speech in which he described Buchanan as “an incorruptible statesman and a faithful public servant.”



The life of President Buchanan inspired me to write an essay about the great virtue of gratitude as the sign of a gentleman. You can read it on my website.


Meridian Hill Park also has a statue of St. Joan of Arc, which is the only equestrian statue of a woman in Washington, D.C. It is a copy of the original at the Rheims Cathedral. The statue was a gift from the Society of French Women in Exile in New York, prompted by the canonization of St. Joan in 1920. It was dedicated on January 6, 1922. President Warren G. Harding was in attendance during the dedication ceremony, along with the French Ambassador. Several thousand local spectators were also in attendance to watch the unveiling. The original sword she was holding in her right hand was stolen in 1978 and not replaced until December of 2011.



My main travel attraction was a visit to the Holy Face Parish in Great Mills, Maryland. I wanted to see it not only because it is the only historical parish in America dedicated to the Holy Face, but also to correct the misunderstanding of some Traditionalists that this powerful devotion of reparation has been condemned by the Church. (I looked into the matter more closely in this article).


The beginning of the Holy Face parish dates from the arrival of The Ark and The Dove, the two ships that began the Maryland colony. They landed at St. Clement’s Island on March 25, 1634. With these earliest colonists came a Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White. Two days after the landing, Father White and the settlers arrived at their new home at St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capital. The very first Catholic Chapel was a former Indian house which was given to Father White, who recorded: “You might call this the first chapel in Maryland, although its fittings are barely an improvement on what the house had been as an Indian dwelling.” In 1636 this Indian home was replaced by a brick chapel shaped like a cross, which was used intermittently for both Catholic and Protestant services.



In 1694 the Catholic government of the second Royal Governor Thomas Lawrence was overthrown. The new Royal Governor, Francis Nicholson, a committed Anglican, moved the capital to Annapolis, 70 miles north of St. Mary’s. As a result, St. Mary’s began to rapidly decline. The Maryland Assembly came to believe the “popish chapel” at St. Mary’s City was scandalous and offensive to the government. Therefore in 1704, the chapel was carefully dismantled by the Catholics living in the area so it could be moved five miles down the river to St. Inigoes Manor where the materials were used to build a house for priests on a property owned by the Jesuits.


The start of the Holy Face mission in Great Mills, 8 miles northwest from St. Mary’s, dates from 1879. That year Jesuit Father James Pye Neale arrived at the Jesuit residence at St. Inigoes. Every third week he travelled the 12 miles distance to celebrate Mass in a one-room village store in Great Mills that had been converted into a church. This mission was first known as the Guardian Angel Chapel. One of the parishioners of the Guardian Angel chapel was Mrs. Maria Hammett Cecil, or “Miss Maria”, wife of William Washington Cecil, the owner of the big textile mill of Cecil’s Mill. Miss Maria had a great devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. In 1880, a picture showing Christ’s Face on Saint Veronica’s veil was sent to her by Pope Leo XIII, along with the impression of the papal seal.


Fr. James Pye Neale (1840-1895), the first pastor of the Holy Face

Almost from the start the Guardian Angel chapel proved to be too small for the growing Catholic community of Great Mills. Miss Maria’s son John Cecil donated land for a new church building, and when the new church was dedicated on Sunday, July 3, 1887, the Pope’s Holy Face picture was placed above the altar and the mission was called the Holy Face Church. During the early years of the Holy Face parish, Mass was celebrated only one Sunday and on the first Friday of each month. The priest would travel from the rectory at St. Inigoes to Great Mills and spend Saturday evening in the two-story sacristy attached to the church.


In 1924, the Cecil family donated land which was to become the current home of Holy Face Church. The solemn dedication of the new church took place on August 15, 1940 with Father Edward Patrick McAdams (1878-1962), pastor of St. Joseph’s church in Washington D.C. officiating and celebrating the Solemn High Mass.



This little history of the Holy Face church serves well to correct the misunderstandings about this devotion, which was so dear to Bishop Dolan. Starting from the year of 1887, Holy Face was the title of an official parish under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and an image of the Holy Face, sealed by Pope Leo XIII, was placed above the church altar. Leo’s successor, Pope St. Pius X, approved the public liturgical cult and Mass of the Holy Face of Jesus. And in 1925 Pope Pius XI canonized Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, who was an avid promoter of this devotion. She would never have been canonized had she practiced a devotion condemned by the Church.



So if the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus was ever condemned, neither the Archdiocese of Baltimore, or Pope Leo XIII, or Pope St. Pius X, or Pope Pius XI, knew anything about such “condemnation.”


April 26 is the second anniversary of death of Bishop Daniel Dolan. The sorrow his death caused has slowly given way to gratitude for everything he did for us. Our Lord said at the death of the daughter of Jairus: “Weep not, the maid is not dead, but sleepeth.” (Luke 8:52) With the joy of the Resurrection we can remember our own dear ones, too. Michael Landon, the creator of the wonderful TV show Little House on the Prairie had these lines read at his own funeral: “Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”


Yours in the Charity of Christ and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart,


Fr. Vili Lehtoranta


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