Skip to main content

RG 03: Port Tobacco Foundation, 1790-1831 (PTF)

 Record Group
Identifier: RG 03-GAMMS.2

Scope and Contents

If it had been in the minds and hearts of several American clergy as well as a few American women who were members of two Carmels in the Low Countries to establish Carmel in America, the dream would not be realized until key lay persons in both Europe and the United States jointly pursued the idea in the years immediately following the American revolution. Their moral support and financial encouragement (especially that of the Brussels benefactor, Balthassar De Villegas D'Estainbourg) would bring the plan to realization. The founding members of the new venture consisted of five persons: the American-born chaplain and leader of the group, Reverend Charles Neale, who was then a member of the suppressed Jesuit community; three American nuns who were members of Hoogstraet Carmel, Mother Bernardina Teresa Xavier of St. Joseph Matthews and her two nieces, Mary Eleanore of St. Francis Xavier and Mary Aloysia of the Blessed Trinity; and one member of English Antwerp Carmel, the London-born Sister Clare Joseph Dickinson, who was chosen to replace Mother Mary Margaret Brent, another American whose death in 1784 prevented her involvement in the actual founding.

In the company of another former Jesuit, Robert Plunkett, this group set sail from Texel (Low Countries) on May 1, 1790, in a frigate called "The Brothers", captained by a mean-spirited man named Alexander McDougall. They were required to take a round-about and difficult voyage, a fact recorded in a diary kept by Sister Clare Joseph. By the tenth of July the founding party had finally reached the shores of Maryland and settled temporarily at Chandler's Hope, on property owned by Father Neale. Then, again through the generous exchange of property worked out by Charles Neale and Baker Brooke, some 800 acres of land and a dwelling at Port Tobacco became the site of the monastery dedicated to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The Sisters took possession of their new home at Port Tobacco on October 15, 1790. From then, until they were required to move to Baltimore in 1831, this site served as the first religious foundation for women established in the original thirteen states. Under the solid leadership of Father Neale who functioned as both chaplain and overseer of the farm, and with the guidance of the first two prioresses, Mothers Bernardina Matthews (1790-1800) and Clare Joseph Dickinson (1800-1830) -- as well as with the help of approximately fifty Negroes who had been accepted by Carmel as part of several members' dowries-- the nuns succeeded into establishing themselves. By the 1820s there were at least twenty sisters; all had managed the arduous task of pioneer building. In a kind of family setting, intensified by the fact that at least five were related by blood and all, but one, were natives of Maryland, a community life firmly took root. Because the financial situation became increasingly tenuous, especially after the death of Neale in 1823, however, it became clear that the sisters would have to find other means for survival. With no chaplain able to combine husbandry and priesthood as Neale had successfully done, it was decided that the nuns should relocate to Baltimore where their livelihood could be provided through the establishment of a school. On September 14,1831, after the exhausting move, the Sisters settled at Aisquith Street, in Baltimore. At that point, it became the task of the fourth bishop of Baltimore, Archbishop James Whitfield, to find a way to assist them.

The records of the Port Tobacco Foundation reflect, in particular, the European spiritual and financial roots of this new foundation as well as the first forty year of development in the United States. The European records consist of documents and papers related to the move from Europe; they highlight the transactions of foundation and the journey itself and indicate the way in which the founders managed to provide continuity, guidance and stability in the new setting. On the one hand, they supply insight into the reasons why certain decisions, such as the choice of Sister Clare Joseph over the more likely candidate, Sister Teresa Cowdrey, occurred. On the other hand, they give evidence of the roles played by the founders in developing the community in the new world and in interacting in Maryland's economic, social, and political arena.

The papers of the founders comprise several series of this record group. The largest holdings are those of Mother Clare Joseph, consisting of the diary she kept aboard ship, spiritual direction and poetry written or copied by her, ceremonials and customs she helped to establish. Most of the papers of Charles Neale also reflect his role as spiritual director and retreat master. The correspondence written either to or by the founders are included as one series in this record group.

The financial and legal papers kept by the Port Tobacco community are significant parts of this record group in that they illustrate the social and legal bases of financial interaction in a society still tied to agriculture and to slavery. One particularly difficult aspect of their lives in this regard is well documented: the law suit against the sisters initiated by the heirs of Baker Brooke after his death in 1817. This series (the Durham Collection) reflects the case that reached the appeals court, where it was successfully tried by Roger B. Taney, a Catholic lawyer who would achieve great fame as second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The business and legal affairs of Charles Neale are also documented in this collection.

In addition, the papers of Benedict J. Fenwick, S.J., who succeeded Neale briefly as chaplain before he was named Bishop of Boston in 1825, serve as a fine comparison to the kind of direction he provided in the few years he was spiritual director as opposed to that of the more serious Neale in the latter's lengthy tenure there but also for the added perspective it provides regarding Fenwick, himself, as bishop.

Finally, because one of the members, Sister Barbara (Grace Fenwick Neale) was a widow, her personal papers reveal a fascinating dimension of Maryland social history, especially with regard to the concerns of a married couple's provision for their family's security.

Arranged chronologically, by series and subseries.


  • Creation: 1650-1831
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1780-1830


3 linear feet

Organization of the Collection

This collection is organized into series:

  1. Series 1, Series 1: Documents of departure and foundation, 1790
  2. Series 2, Series 2: Papers of M.Bernardina Matthews & her two nieces
  3. Series 3, Series 3: Papers of Founder:Clare J.Dickinson (1755-1830)
  4. Series 4, Series 4: Papers of Founder: Charles Neale, SJ (1751-1823)
  5. Series 5, Series 5: Correspondence of Founders
  6. Series 6, Series 6: Community Life and Correspondence of Members
  7. Series 7, Series 7: Financial Records, Port Tobacco
  8. Series 8, Series 8: Legal Records, Port Tobacco
  9. Series 9, Series 9: The Durham Collection (1649-1838)
  10. Series 10, Series 10: Papers of Sister Barbara (Grace Fenwick) Neale
  11. Series 11, Series 11: Papers of Benedict Fenwick, S.J., chaplain
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore Repository

1318 Dulaney Valley Road
Baltimore MD 21286 USA