Catholic History: The Ark and Dove


Continuing our series on early American Catholic history, today we take a look at the ships that the first English Catholics traveled in to Maryland.  Named Ark and Dove, the ships were chosen by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore’s son, specifically because they had been used in previous expeditions to the New World. The larger of the two ships, Ark, was essentially a moving van, a rented ship used to move the 200 original colonists and their worldly possessions to Maryland.  The Dove was a smaller vessel designed for the colony’s use in the New World as a regional vessel.

By early colonial standards, the ships were a luxury. Not only did most of the early colonial settlements travel in a single vessel, but the Ark was larger than most colonial “moving vans.”  It had 220 more tons burthen than the Mayflower and 280 more tons burthen than the largest ship that the original Jamestown settlement had. 

The trip to the New World was exceptionally dangerous for several reasons.  First, and perhaps most obviously, historians estimate that the Dove was a mere 76 feet in length.  76 feet is a far cry from a modern ocean-crossing vessel, a fact which caught up to the Dove when it was lost at sea during a return voyage to England.  76 foot yachts are not terribly uncommon today and it is difficult to imagine wanting to cross the Atlantic in one without a priest close by.  Father White, S.J., frequently noted that the ships seemed to be in peril in choppy seas.

Second, perhaps because of the slightly nature of the Dove, the Calverts tried to limit the distance of the Atlantic crossing as much as possible by traveling south to Africa, west to South America, and finally north to Maryland.  A route south took the ships near Catholic Spain, which was not on the friendliest of terms with England at the time.  More dangerously, a trip near north Africa took the ships dangerously close to the pirate states (see the first few chapters of Robinson Crusoe).  Although the travel records indicate that the Ark had a gunner on board, this was more likely an extra deck hand who was responsible for firing a signal cannon at appropriate ceremonial moments.

The Calvert’s planned for the Dove to travel in the Ark’s wake because of the diminutive size of the former vessel.  The seas immediately off the coast of England were exceptionally choppy, however, and the two ships quickly became separated.  The Dove was  forced back to England and the Ark was driven further south.  The Ark gave up the Dove as lost and continued traveling to Maryland not knowing that the smaller ship was trying to catch up.  The two eventually reunited in Barbados in January and continued their trip north from there.

The colonists eventually reached land on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, March 25th, about four months after leaving England.  Legend has it that the colonists had arrived a few days earlier but waited for the Marian feast day to make their initial landing on St. Clement’s Island.  Upon landing, a cross was erected and Mass was immediately held in celebration of the successful trip, with the litany of the Holy Cross at its conclusion.

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