Wednesday, August 31, 2011

At Road's End, Catholics in the Northern Neck

Palmer Hall today.
Catholics living in remote parts of the United States in the early decades of the 19th century often went to great lengths to practice their faith. For my husband's Meredith and Palmer ancestors living in Lancaster and Northumberland Counties, maintaining their Catholic faith involved traveling to Maryland by steamer or arranging for a priest to come to them, as Thomas Meredith did in 1830. 
I am anxious to go to Baltimore this spring to make my Easter but if I go when Brother Thomas goes I shall not be able to stay so long and must give up the pleasure of his company and protection. Please be so kind as to tell me when would be the best time for me to come and make my Easter. (M. M. Palmer at Clifton to Thomas Meredith, Baltimore, 9 March 1949.)
Since it was far easier to travel by water to Baltimore or Norfolk than by road to Richmond they journeyed to Baltimore to celebrate religious holidays, marriages and christenings when they could. But from at least 1830 the family celebrated Mass at home whenever a priest was able to visit.

The Confession chair at Clifton
After the Civil War John A. Palmer took over the family home at Clifton and raised a large family. According to his family, priests would come from Baltimore or Fredericksburg and celebrate Mass in one of the large parlors. Confession would be heard with the priest sitting in one of the wing chairs. Though there were only a few Catholic families in the area, Palmer began lobbying for a church to be built in Kilmarnock. On August 1, 1885 Palmer and his wife deeded land near the town to Bishop Keane of Richmond for five dollars (Lancaster County (VA) Deed Book 45:473). A small frame church was built and the mission parish of Saint Francis de Sales was opened. Priests continued to travel by steamer, staying at Clifton, but celebrating Mass in the new church. No resident priest lived there until after 1915.

Copy of 1885 Deed
In 1956 a new church was constructed next door and the first building became a parish hall. Palmer Hall, as it is known today, was restored several years ago. St. Francis de Sales remains a small parish in numbers, but covering much of the land of the Northern Neck. It has established its own mission church, St. Pauls Catholic Church 35 miles away in Hague, VA.

My husband's family is enormously proud of their efforts to maintain and promote their faith at Clifton since 1840 despite the distances involved. His great-grandmother, John Palmer's sister, kept her copy of the deed with her most treasured family papers.

View Catholic Churchs c. 1840 in a larger map

Written for the 109th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.

For further information see
St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Virginia (New River Notes)
The Museum of Virginia Catholic History and Diocesan Archives


  1. What a wonderful family and faith history! I know your husband must be very proud of this.

  2. Count your blessings marrying into a family with such awareness of their own family history and achievements :)


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