This story starts in 1491, a year before the discoveries of Christopher Columbus. It ends in 2009, with preservation given to thousands of acres and many miles of the Chesapeake shoreline.

Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish knight of good family, was wounded in the 1521 Battle of Pamplona at age 31. He subsequently became a priest and dedicated his life to countering Protestantism. He also set out to take the message of his Catholic faith to foreign souls.

After traveling to Rome with several devout followers, he obtained a papal blessing to found the Society of Jesus, with the joint goals of missionary work, education, and, as the discipline developed, science. When he died in 1556, there were about 1,000 priests in this Catholic order.

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1579. This was a region where the men were described as "evil in religion." In Anglican England, this meant being a Catholic.

Calvert, to assure his future, was tutored by a Protestant and "examined" on a monthly basis to see how his "correct" religious training progressed. His father posted the Bonds of Conformity to the Anglican faith, a requirement under the Elizabethan penal codes. As he grew to manhood, George gave no indication that this enforced Anglican conversion was insincere.

He rose under King James, Queen Elizabeth's successor, and was eventually appointed a member of the Privy Council, secretary of state and, in 1605, Earl of Salisbury. In 1608, Calvert became royal treasurer, the most powerful man at court. This was not to last. Even though he was on the wrong side of some important issues, he still maintained his supposed Anglican credentials and was made first Lord Baltimore.

The year 1579 also saw the birth of another Catholic, Andrew White, in London. At the age of 14, he was sent to an English seminary in Douai, France, to pursue his education. At the age of 16, he attended St. Alban's College at Valladolid, Spain, and was later educated at Seville. White returned to Douai for his ordination in 1605.

Determined to proselytize in England, he returned there and was arrested during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that followed the "Gunpowder Plot," an attempt to blow up Parliament. White was banished. In Leuven, Belgium, reflective of his missionary zeal, he joined the Society of Jesus in February 1607.

(Meanwhile, the English expedition for Jamestown was working its way north from the Caribbean to Virginia.)

In 1609, while serving as prefect of seminaries at Leuven and Liege, and under threat of death as religious dissenter, White again returned to preach in England. It is believed that in 1625, he had a role in the conversion of Baron Baltimore, George Calvert, to Catholicism.

He was not alone. In 1624, Simon Stock, a Carmelite priest, claimed that he had converted two privy councilors to Catholicism. One was almost certainly was George Calvert-a very hazardous condition for one so high in government. Still, he worked with Stock on a scheme for establishing a Catholic colony in America.

When King James died in 1625 and Charles I ascended to the throne, George Calvert returned to the court. His baronetcy was confirmed, and the king eventually blessed his ventures abroad.

In 1628, Calvert, then in America, wrote to White from the ill-fated colony he had planted on Newfoundland's frigid Avalon Peninsula. This settlement would fail from severity of the climate.

Undaunted, Calvert received patents on a large "precinct" carved out of Virginia, upon which he might raise tobacco, the wildly profitable cash crop of the day. He went to Virginia in 1629 to implement this plan, but was met with stiff opposition, chiefly by William Claiborne, who already had a successful Native American trading business around what would become the Maryland Chesapeake. George Calvert returned to England, rebuffed.

White's interest in the New World and conversion of the unsaved, however, was strong. In 1629, Superior General Mutio Vitelleschi approved a Jesuit mission to America.

George Calvert died in 1632, just five weeks before June 29, when the king finally chartered the new venture for Maryland. Calvert's son Cecil, second Lord Baltimore, would carry forth the proposal, sending his brother Leonard to lead the outbound expedition.

Eight months later, in 1633, Father White wrote, advocating "lord Baltimore's Plantation in Mary-land" describing its financial backers and the expected "paradisiacal land with majestic forests and fruitful soil." White advertised a powerful incentive: 2,000 acres of land for each potential settler.

That November, White, with fellow Jesuits John Altham Gravenor and Thomas Gervase, sailed from Cowes on the Isle of Wight aboard The Ark of London, one of Baltimore's two ships for the New World. These men, spiritual guides for the settlement, would become apostles to the new colony.

The Ark and its companion ship, Dove, stopped first in Virginia, where they were reluctantly reprovisioned with such essentials as were available. But they were not welcomed by the staunchly Protestant Jamestown leadership. White wrote a stirring account of their voyage to Maryland, and a great portrayal of the local environment, its forests and native people as he found it.

They proceeded up the chilly March Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Potomac, the Bay's second greatest tributary, and began seeking a place to settle. They landed first on a small island at the mouth of Breton Bay, naming it St. Clements Island. It was later called Blackiston or Blackistone Island, after a colonist who owned it in 1669, but has reverted to its original name. They erected a large cross there in March 1634, their first 'footprint' in Maryland, on what is reckoned to be the birth-date of this state. St. Clements was once estimated at 400 acres, but it was too small for a settlement by any measure.

Leaving his people secure on this island and at work building a temporary fort, Leonard Calvert set off with a party to select a place for the permanent settlement. In this they were helped by Henry Fleet, a ship captain and trader who had been a captive of Native Americans, learned their language and upon his release, developed significant knowledge of the Potomac.

There were a number of such traders, the equivalent of "mountain men" later common in the U.S. West. Some were unscrupulous; one of them once claimed that Fleet was dead and demanded that the native people sell him their beaver skins ... only three days before a frustrated Fleet returned.

Fleet was initially an honest broker as he helped Lord Baltimore's colonists and the Jesuit fathers get established on high, level and fertile ground along a tributary just downstream of Breton Bay. They named their settlement St. Mary's. Fleet's mercantile instincts later led him to continue trading with the natives for his own account, ignoring agreements made with the Marylanders.

Growth of the Maryland Colony is a long and complex story in itself, but along with this development came the acquisition of significant land parcels by the Jesuits. The first property acquired appears to have been Saint Inigoes Manor, 2,000 acres purchased by a later Jesuit arrival, Father Thomas Copley, from Richard Gerard, its first English owner.

Simultaneously, Copley acquired another 1,000 acres on nearby St. George Island. More parcels, acquired by other Jesuit investors, followed over the decades. These "plantations" were farmed and the proceeds helped support the priests and their work, as they battled to amend the dubious morals of their colonist flock, and to convert what they viewed as a receptive Yeocomico people.

By the 1640s, they were writing a series of "annual report" letters back to Rome. In order to show the hand of God busily at work in this distant land, they attributed various events and accidents to divine retribution, describing some pretty gruesome deaths, from "bloody fluxes" and the like, wrought upon unrepentant sinners. One letter documented a pretty incontrovertible case of a fatal shark attack on a man swimming in the Potomac, who had somehow abused his rosary beads. The victim, for his part in the affair, "was rapidly hurried from amongst the living."

The idea of natural resource conservation was far from the minds of early Maryland colonists. The New World resources were considered limitless, especially because the colonists' explorations inland revealed vast rivers and virtually unbroken woodlands.

After occupying the parcels already cleared by the Yeocomicos, the colonists set about harvesting the timber, sometimes clearing entire forests by girdling their trees. Room had to be made for Lord Baltimore's most promising crop, Maryland leaf tobacco.

Initially, the Jesuits transported English people, 60 within the first decade, who were indentured into servitude for a fixed term of years. Later-as early as 1639-tenant farmers, free of indenture but occupying lands owned by others, also worked these properties. They farmed or worked at their trades, often smithing and milling, on lands the Jesuits had acquired.

As the colony became more populated, the number of incoming laborers willing to accept indenture or tenant status declined. The problem then became how to work these lands profitably with a dwindling workforce-in the face of competition from freehold planters selling to the same market.

Paradoxically, the Jesuits tried their hand at slave ownership. Even with more than 200 slaves in Maryland alone, the Jesuit plantations never were financially successful.

Jesuit lands, acquired over time, eventually included substantial parcels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and along the upper Chesapeake's Bohemia River. These were large holdings, about 4,500 acres, and they remained in the hands of the Jesuit order for hundreds of years. Much of the acreage was worked for a succession of farming interests, and where forests had reappeared, some parts were logged for the timber dollars they yielded. Other parcels were left fallow and quietly regained possession of their natural attributes.

By the 1820s, Jesuit landholders appeared to want out of the South's "peculiar institution" of owning slaves. But it was not clear how to stop. Some of the theology included convoluted reasoning that slavery was divinely ordained, so long as one brought Christianity to the enslaved.

The solution the Maryland Jesuits decided upon in 1838 was not manumission-freeing the enslaved people-but selling its 272 slaves to a pair of Catholic sugar plantation owners in Louisiana, who agreed to keep families together and respect the people's Christian faith.

Tenants continued to work on the Jesuit lands at least until the 1920s, but it was the rise of urban, Catholic immigration that took the Jesuit mission away from agriculture and into U.S. cities. Their land holdings remained very large.

Reaching out in their education mission, the Jesuit order had seminal roles in founding both Georgetown University and Loyola College. (The Catholic University of America though, was founded by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops.)

The denouement of this long story is a recent decision by the Society of Jesus, Maryland Province, to divest itself of large parcels on the perimeters of Chesapeake Bay. They entered negotiations with the Maryland officials. Last December, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that an agreement had been reached on the price of the transfer, $57 million.

Father James Casciotti, socius of the society in Maryland, said the order will invest the funds to support health care for aging Jesuit brethren, and that it was pleased to pass on the land responsibly to public ownership. About 4,500 acres spread across St. Mary's, Charles, Cecil and Worcester counties and 20 miles of Chesapeake shoreline will be preserved.

These lands include a broad neck of forest and farm fields on the west shore of Breton Bay. This parcel, the Newtown Neck Plantation, sits much as it has for 370 years. Once the 'home farm' of the first-generation Jesuits, its fertile soils continue to bear a considerable annual harvest. Now in public hands, it also remains an enduring example of the natural treasures that drew the Jesuits, and scores of other early settlers, to the Chesapeake.