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Pope Francis, elected Wednesday by his fellow cardinals to lead the Roman Catholic Church, shares with St. Mary’s County a Jesuit heritage.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina became the first Jesuit pope. Much of St. Mary’s County along the Potomac River was once owned by the Jesuit church, an order that originated in Spain.

Father Andrew White, a Jesuit, first ministered to American Indian populations and the English-speaking populations in the region when he came over on the Ark and the Dove with the first Europeans to settle in Maryland in 1634.

The Jesuits here were involved in missionary work and oversaw large tracts of farmland for more than 300 years.

“We at one point had over 30,000 acres in Southern Maryland,” the Rev. Thomas Clifford, pastor at St. Ignatius at Chapel Point, said. The Port Tobacco Catholic church is one of only four Jesuit parishes left in the Maryland and Washington, D.C., area.

Clifford said that at one point there were 30 Jesuit parishes in Southern Maryland. Now, St. Ignatius in Charles County is the only one.

During the missionary work in the Americas and elsewhere, the Jesuits founded many schools, including Georgetown University and Loyola University.

“We ended up being noted as educators,” Clifford said.

On Oct. 24, 1924, Catholics led by the Rev. John LaFarge, a Jesuit, held opening ceremonies dedicating Gibbons Hall in Ridge, an agricultural and industrial institute that promoted “a sound understanding and love of the Catholic faith,” according to “In Relentless Pursuit of an Education,” a book chronicling a century of segregated schooling for blacks in St. Mary’s.

There was no public high school for blacks in St. Mary’s County at the time, and Jesuits intended for the institution to be a “community school,” that not only taught students a trade, but equipped them to be “leaders in their community and the church.” The school, also called the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, closed in 1967 and was torn down five years later.

“Life was tied to the church. They also understood that education was tied to getting a better way of living,” said Claudette Bennett, archivist at St. Peter Claver Church. In many cases, “all that they learned, most of it came from the school,” said Bennett, whose mother was enrolled there. “They didn’t know any other way, except for the Jesuit way.”

The selection of the new pope offered tie-ins for Catholic students at St. Mary’s five Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools and St. Mary’s Ryken High School.

“The kids were all tuned into it yesterday and were all excited,” the Rev. Lee Fangmeyer at St. Michael’s Church in Ridge said Thursday. He said the students have been learning about the history of the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership position and just what a pope does.

Fangmeyer said he offered prayers for the new pope during a Thursday morning Mass at the church’s school.

“He does seem very humble and authentic,” he said.

His parishioners, especially the older ones, are recalling when the Jesuits still ran most of the churches in the region through the 1960s.

“This is Jesuit country,” Fangmeyer said.

The Jesuits, which began in the early 1500s as a reform group of the Catholic church, vowed to help the poor.

At one point, they were not recognized formally by the Catholic church. Local Jesuits were criticized by the church for the use of slaves, Clifford said.

A lot has changed since then, and the election of a Jesuit pope solidifies that, Clifford said.

He said he was surprised by the election of Pope Francis, but pleased, adding that it was likely the Argentinian’s “down-to-earth” interactions with people that helped make him an attractive choice for the cardinals.

The Jesuit designation could bring some extra attention to Clifford’s parish in Charles County, he said.

The Rev. Brian Sanderfoot spends his days in an area that reminds him of St. Mary’s County’s — and his own — Jesuit roots. St. Francis Xavier Church in Newtowne was first established as a Catholic community in 1662 and was served by Jesuits for more than 300 years, he said.

“It’s believed that the first Jesuit school in the United States was located here in Newtowne,” Sanderfoot said. There also was a working farm, which had a main crop of tobacco, he said.

“We’re very excited with our Jesuit heritage at St. Francis Xavier,” Sanderfoot said. And, he said, he’s excited to have a new pope who is not only a Jesuit, but has taken the name Francis, although the new pope took his name from St. Francis of Assisi.

Parishioners in St. Mary’s feel a tie to Pope Francis, but like the message of the gospel, Sanderfoot said, he also can represent and guide people around the world.

“It’s definitely a sign of our unity. It’s a time that brings us together and we can be grateful to God,” Sanderfoot said. “It reminds us what we have in common — sharing the same gospel and professing the same religion.”

“Pope Francis is more than just the successor to Benedict XVI; he is the successor to all those who came before him in an unbroken line going all the way back to Peter,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said in a statement. “In Pope Francis, we recognize the successor to Peter and the visible sign of the unity of the Church spread throughout the whole world.”

jyeatman@somdnews.com

nclark@somdnews.com