Constructed in the first years of the 18th century, 10 Francis Street stands firmly – and ironically – on the tradition of religious freedom of which Maryland is so justly proud. Housed in this historic building, the offices of the Maryland Catholic Conference stand in the shadow of the State House, poised to act on behalf of Maryland’s bishops and the state’s Catholic community to apply the light of Gospel values to the increasingly complex public-policy issues of the 21st century.
The building was erected around 1708 by merchant Henry Donaldson at the behest of the early Annapolis planner, Sir Francis Nicholson, royal governor of Maryland from 1694 to 1699. Nearly 300 years old, the structure is the oldest dwelling – perhaps the oldest building – in Annapolis. It was constructed midway between the passage of The Toleration Act of 1649, which granted religious freedom to Catholics and all Maryland inhabitants, and the start of the American Revolution in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence proclaimed religious freedom throughout the land.
Herein, the irony: Whereas the admirable purpose of Maryland’s founding settler, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had been to promote the religious toleration that was proclaimed in 1649, Sir Francis came to Annapolis for a different purpose entirely. It was he who moved the capital from St. Mary’s City to Annapolis and decreed that the religion of the Church of England should be the official religion of the colony. It was under his stewardship that the Mother Church was burned and a Calvert home bombed. It was under his rule that anti-Catholic penal laws were enacted, laws modeled after those imposed upon Ireland by William of Orange and Mary II, England’s co-rulers.
The American Revolution overturned Sir Francis’s purposes, restoring religious tolerance to Maryland and proclaiming religious freedom an American birthright. While it may have taken 300 years, the Catholic Church in Maryland now occupies the house Sir Francis Nicholson had built on the street now named in his honor.
Among Sir Francis’s progressive ideas was the plan for King William’s School, a small group of buildings on Francis Street including what is now No. 10. The school would become St. John’s College.
By the eve of the American Revolution, No. 10 was the Indian King Tavern & Inn. In 1774, its proprietor, Isaac McHard, advertised lodging rooms that were “light and airy and have most of them fire places…and the house is situated half way between the State-house and the Dock.” Maryland’s Revolutionary War involvement was planned here. Here stopped Washington, Lafayette, and other of the new nation’s giants. The inn also housed notable national lawmakers during the 11 months (1783-1784) when Annapolis was the capital of the “United States in Congress assembled.”
Recently restored by its just-previous owner, the building retains many of its original aspects. In its basement, the oldest part of the structure, remain two open brick fireplaces where meals were prepared for early residents. The paneled first-floor room is another early part of the structure. The fireplaces of the Indian King Tavern & Inn remain features of most rooms.
Within the walls of this historic place, the Maryland Catholic Conference continues to carry on the integral partnership between our Church and our State, as a sign of the religious freedom so precious to all Marylanders.
This account draws on information provided by the Historic Annapolis Foundation and Maryland’s State Archivist, Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse. We thank them both.