Saint Francis Xavier Church was founded by Father Thomas Mansell, S.J. in 1704. It is one of the earliest Catholic establishments in the English Colonies and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Since the church is the oldest institution in the area that now comprises the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Old Bohemia is truly the Mother Church of the Wilmington diocese.
The plantation was clandestinely established to minister to the scattered Catholics throughout what is now Cecil County, MD, the entire Delmarva Peninsula, and southeastern PA when Catholicism was outlawed in the English Colonies. Maryland Colony’s laws during this period and until after the American Revolution prohibited the building of Catholic churches and schools, and the holding of public office by Catholics. Wealthy families often had chapels in their homes where horse circuit-riding priests would periodically come to offer Mass.
The income from the plantation supported the priests’ secret mission stations and educational activities. The Jesuits planted tobacco and other crops and ran a water-powered grist mill and a sawmill on the Bohemia River that crosses the property. Also on the plantation was a kiln for making bricks, a carpenter and a blacksmith shop, an ice house and various farm buildings typical of such a large operation.
In 1745, Fr. Thomas Poulton, S.J. started a school for boys, Bohemia Academy, and it lasted about 10 years. The school was most likely located in front of the present rectory. Among the pupils who attended the school was John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States. He is listed in school records as “Jacky” Carroll. Bishop Carroll founded Georgetown University in 1789.
Old Bohemia was the wellspring of Christian tolerance whereby the Jesuit Fathers carried out their missionary work into the surrounding territory and beyond. Old St. Joseph Church on Willing’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA was established in 1733. The first Catholic church in Delaware, St. Mary’s at Coffee Run (Hockessin), DE was built in 1772. Old St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, New York City, NY was founded in 1785. Many of the priests who served here are buried behind the church in an area surrounded by boxwood shrubs. The priests who served at St. Francis Xavier also established other churches throughout the area including St. Joseph in Cordova, MD (1765); Immaculate Conception in Elkton, MD (1849); St. Rose of Lima in Chesapeake City, MD (1874) and St. Joseph’s in Middletown, DE (1883). After the Diocese of Wilmington was established in 1868, the territory covered by the Jesuits at Old Bohemia was further reduced from time to time as new parishes were opened.
Perhaps the most famous grave in the graveyard is of Catherine "Kitty" Knight, (1775-1855) credited for saving an elderly neighbor, a church and much of Georgetown, MD during the war of 1812, although her own house burned to the ground. Also buried in the cemetery are heroes from every American war.
The Jesuits left the Old Bohemia in 1898 and gave the property to the Diocese of Wilmington. In 1929, during the Depression, the Diocese lost the property and St. Francis Xavier Church and rectory were left abandoned to the elements.
The buildings at Old Bohemia suffered serious deterioration due to having been unused for so many years. In 1953, the Old Bohemia Historical Society was formed by a Catholic, a Quaker and a Methodist who purchased the property's core 120 acres with the goal to restore and maintain the historic site. Since that time, members have worked to bring the property back to its original state. It is the desire of the members of the Society to obtain advice, talent, and funds to preserve Old Bohemia as an inspirational and historic shrine in memory of those who forged the Catholic faith in fledgling colonies. The Jesuit founders succeeded because of their faith and independence. Old Bohemia Historical Society upholds the same spirit and respect for this special place. We invite you to visit the modest museum located in the rectory that displays church-related relics of yesteryear.