14 Unknown Facts about the Founding of Catholicism in America

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English Catholics were among the first to come to the New World when the British Colonies were developed, hoping to find freedom from the religious persecution they faced in their homeland. But so much of the early American Catholic history is forgotten, and accordingly, must be preserved.

In his book Pioneer Priests and Makeshift Altars: A History of Catholicism in the Thirteen Colonies, Fr. Charles Connor tells the tale of the beginnings of the Faith in this country and inspires us now to proclaim the love of Christ through the examples of our lives. Here are 14 incredible facts from his book.

1. Humanism was the precursor to the Reformation upheaval

Connor here is very specific and thoughtful about what events and ideas and philosophies brought forth the Reformation. In his view, it wasn’t just a jump from the “golden age” of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and then the Reformation, but a more gradual turn.

He notes, “The Renaissance followed the Middle Ages, during which an individual’s state in life was clearly determined by his position–– monk, professor, mason, soldier, craftsman, peasant. This would change drastically by the fifteenth century, when the prevailing sentiment in Europe prioritized personal freedom and individual development. In other words, subjectivity had assumed priority, and man was quickly becoming the measure of all things…Humanism would not hesitate to use pagan or other religious images. Many humanists tried to reread paganism in light of Christianity in order to find the true and worthwhile elements even in the ancient traditions. The humanist worked from the basic theory that man can be educated intellectually, morally, and religiously, an that in doing so he is fulfilling his potential and thus giving glory to his Creator–– whoever or whatever that might be.”

2. Calvin had a more significant influence on early American religious thought than Luther

We hear a lot a lot about Martin Luther and how he started the Reformation and how he was basically the biggest enemy of the Church and influencer of Protestant thought. Perhaps this is because he was raised a Catholic and was an Augustinian monk. However, Connor points out that it was actually John Calvin who had a much bigger influence on early American religious thought (note: Calvin was also born Catholic but broke from the Church intentionally in adulthood).

Connor writes, “To many of the more radical reformers, it seemed that Luther had only pretended to break from the Church. Calvin presented a compelling alternative: the model of community reformed according to the word of God…In this brief synopsis of Continental Reform we can see the many strains that contributed to early American religious thought. These ideas would make their way to the American colonies through England, and later Germany, and fashion a religious impulse starkly different from the Catholic Faith–– and throughout most of the colonial period, openly hostile to it.”

3. Henry VIII was a very popular monarch and his tension with the Church led to English tension with the Church

Despite his current reputation, Henry VIII was actually a very popular monarch and people spoke glowingly of him. It was under this light that made so many defend Henry and also what contributed to Henry likening himself to his own religious authority. Of course, trouble started brewing when Henry VIII came of age during his reign and married Catherine of Aragon.

“This growing English nationalism stood in sharp contrast to the Church’s internationalism, and reaffirmed a centuries-old conflict between church and state, which, in the past, had taken many forms. ‘I only wish to command my own subjects,’ Henry declared, ‘but on the other hand, I do not choose anyone to have in his power to command me, nor will I ever suffer it.’…Despite [Henry’s] apparent commitment to orthodoxy, the Renaissance had brought a critical spirit and, with it, antipodal sentiments. There was a growing distrust of and disagreement with Catholic teachings, and, by the time of Henry’s final break with Rome, the English mind-set was quite fixed,” Connor writes.

4. The first English Catholics in the New World were pretty well off

Sometimes we imagine the first colonizers to be poor, starving, and severely persecuted, and no doubt some of them were. But we forget that to make these sorts of journeys, at least in the beginning, that you had to have money to do so.

Connor notes, “The men and women adventurers who heeded the call of George Calvert, First Lord of Baltimore, to venture to the new world, where he had been given a title to what was designated the Palatinate of Maryland, were, for the most part, people of means. Largely, though by no means exclusively, Catholics, they were people who were accustomed to a comfortable way of life in England and intended to transplant that lifestyle to Maryland…Those devout souls who ventured across the Atlantic were well prepared not only for a long, strenuous journey, but for living the Faith freely and openly.”

5. England became interested in colonizing to…combat Spanish Catholicism, no joke

Yes, that’s right, England was interested in overseas colonization not only for enterprising reasons but to combat the rampant Catholicism of Spain. “England was becoming interested in overseas enterprise for commercial reasons; a strong contributing factor in this was the 1584 publication of Richard Hakluyt’s Discourse Concerning Western Planting, presenting a strong argument for colonization in the new world, especially to combat Spanish Catholicism and its perceived superstitions,” Connor notes.

6. Anti-Catholic sentiments in England had started to peter out

While persecution of Catholics in England had been bad in years previous, it wasn’t extremely terrible under Charles I, who had married the Catholic Henrietta Maria. Many Catholics, especially wealthier ones, found relative peace and ability to practice Catholicism freely. Cecil Calvert, Lord of Baltimore, himself a Catholic, knew this and so didn’t target religious freedom as a good reason for people to accompany him to the new world.

“His greatest success would come from those who saw the opportunity for political power and social status. Generally, these were the second and third sons of prosperous British families who knew they would not inherit the whole of the family fortune. Of these, the majority were Catholics of the gentry class–– and usually had long ties to the Calvert family. Their religion generally stood in the way of any type of advancement in England, and their willingness to make the voyage to the New World became stronger the more they eyed their current reality,” Connor writes.

7. Jesuits were the first English priests in America

Father Andrew White, Father John Altham, and Brother Thomas Gervase were the three Jesuits daring enough to join Calvert on the journey to the new world. Father White documented their journey, the Native Americans they encountered, and the spiritual aspects of their lives at length.

Connor writes, “On the first of March 1634, the two ships entered Chesapeake Bay and sailed north toward the Potomac…The English Jesuit claimed never to have seen a grander river…Upon disembarking, Father White became the first Englishman to celebrate Mass in the New World.”

8. Catholicism spread in the colonies despite persecution, mainly because the royal family started converting

Connor notes: “In addition to Virginia, the mid- and late-seventeenth century also witnessed Catholic expansion on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The times were ripe for such an expansion: By 1669, King Charles II had confided t his wife his wish to be reconciled to the Catholic Church. Though it would be some time coming, he did make certain concessions, including a ‘Declaration of Indulgence for Tender Consciences,’ suspending all laws against those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy…In 1671, Charles’s brother, James, Duke of York, openly proclaimed himself a Catholic, and in a very public Catholic ceremony two years later married Mary of Modena, a devout Catholic woman.”

The population of Catholics in England at this time numbered only about one-fifth and in the colonies they numbered only about one-twelfth, but Catholicism and her people finally found enough freedom to expand. Because of borders and where many prominent Catholic families in the colonies were located, the Wye River basin became an enclave for Catholic families. However, the Glorious Revolution in England saw, after the death of Charles II, the ascent to the throne of James II, his subsequent flee to France, and the ascent of William and Mary jointly to the throne as constitutional monarchs chosen by both houses of Parliament. This left Catholics in the colonies with a terrible sense of foreboding.

9. Jesuits and French newcomers helped Catholicism continue to prosper in Maryland

Even though there were only 18 priests working in Maryland at the time and their average age was 50, many Catholics regularly received communion and the sacraments and the Jesuits continued to educate Catholics. Jesuits also founded libraries which became important as more colonists became more educated and numerous.

“The final and very conspicuous addition to Catholicism in Maryland in this century was the arrival of the French Acadians. A great many of Maryland’s Catholics were quite wealthy, so it was relatively easy for them to settle these Catholic refugees in a certain degree of comfort. The Acadians were the victims of the Seven Years’ War, known in the United States as the French and Indian Wr, between France and England. By terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, ending the hostilities, France ceded Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine) to England. The British formally removed more than fourteen thousand French-speaking Catholics from their homes, supposedly because of the fear of favoritism for France, but surely due to religious motives as well,” notes Connor.

10. Catholics were embroiled in the patriot cause basically due to anti-Catholic bigotry in the colonies

With the Quebec Act in 1774, which, among other things, Catholics in Canada were granted religious tolerance and civil rights, and the Church’s privileges were upheld. This outraged most American colonists who were Protestant. Sam Adams is quoted as saying, “They have made a law to establish the religion of the Pope in Canada.” John Adams worried that the entire eastern seaboard would soon be forced to submit to “popery” and that the Protestant religion would be destroyed.

This bigotry against Catholics seeking to peaceably live their lives and practice the Faith, embittered tension between Protestants and Catholics, loyalists and patriots. Catholics quickly found that they had no home among the loyalist Protestants but did find a home among the patriots. One of the most famous Catholics in this battle was Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Connor writes of the significance Carroll played and his relationship with George Washington: “One letter to George Washington argues for what ultimately became the Treaty of Amity and Commerce…This was followed by the Treaty of Alliance…Not only did this become a reality, but Washington himself, on receiving a letter of congratulations from a group of Catholic laymen upon assuming the presidency, responded with his thanks and his hope that they would not soon forget the ad given the revolutionary cause by ‘a nation which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.’ Such sentiments were also expressed during the war years (1776 to 1781) when Washington, in his role as military commander, publicly banned the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day among American soldiers.”

11. Catholics started migrating from Maryland to Kentucky

A number of reasons for this contributed to the migration, one being that in Maryland, Catholics had been barred from holding public office and that legacy didn’t just simply end after the nation won its independence. Another reason was more land, meaning that they could practice and live their faith freely with less obstruction.

“Kentucky would also be the scene of the missionary efforts of Father Stephen Theodore Badin, the first priest to receive all minor orders and be ordained in the United States. He is often called the ‘apostle of Kentucky,’ and his work has become legendary in Kentucky Catholic history,” writes Connor.

12. Pennsylvania was a very different scene for Catholics than Maryland

Connor writes: “In Pennsylvania one found not only Englishmen but Germans, Swedes, Scots, and Irish; while the Anglican Church eventually became the established one in Maryland, a wide variety of denominations were present from Pennsylvania’s outset. William Penn…a Quaker, boasted of the religious freedom that would be enjoyed by new settlers, not to mention the location of the colony with its easy access by water and land to both the interior and eastern seaboard of what would become the United States. These German settles, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, were not inheritors of the British political system, nor would they have felt reason to be aggrieved at the apparent deprivation of the political privileges enjoyed by Englishmen that British colonials so often decried…it would be Pennsylvania where religious liberty was most robustly practiced and deeply felt for many years, due to both the mind of the Quaker proprietor William Penn and the religious dispositions of the sect to which he belonged.”

This disposition allowed pockets of Catholicism to crop up around the Philadelphia and Lancaster areas of Pennsylvania and no distinct borders between sects were kept. Jesuit priests mainly serviced these areas of Pennsylvania. Some of the most known priests of this time were Father Joseph Greaton, Father William Wapplier, Father Theodore Schneider, and Father Robert Harding. Still, Protestant suspicion of Catholics was deep-seated and a particular instance of a Protestant witnessing the annual Corpus Christi procession drives this home.

13. Western Pennsylvania largely owes its Catholicism to the French rather than the British

The history of western Pennsylvania is much different from that of the rest of the state, and the Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia mindset often encountered today is probably residue of this difference. It was the French Canadians, looking to expand into the interior of North America from Quebec and the missionaries who often accompanied explorers and military expeditions who brought Catholicism to western Pennsylvania.

Connor makes note of the first recorded mass: “The first recorded mass offered in present-day Pittsburgh was at the site of Fort Duquesne, later rebuilt and expanded as Fort Pitt, in 1754. The French did not remain there any length of time, however, and Pittsburgh became largely a transfer point for westward expansion.”

Connor goes on to explain where the first major French settlements in Pennsylvania were: “The major settlement in southwestern Pennsylvania occurred between 1769 and 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, and included the counties of Allegheny [where present-day Pittsburgh is located], Washington, Fayette, Westmoreland, and Bedford. Among the settlers were British, Welsh, Scots, Germans, and a mere 4.5 percent Southern Irish Catholic. Even so, the route of Catholic pioneers was well marked out…”

14. New York–– second in the country and in Catholicism

Charles II issued a huge swath of land to his brother James and this became New York. Therefore, New York was the second proprietary colony in British America and the second to be led by a Catholic (Maryland was first on both counts). Religious toleration was thus a founding element of New York and greatly impacted those who had already settled there and influenced many who would come.

However, in the era of the American Revolution, anti-Catholic legislation had once again made it difficult for Catholics to practice their faith or even want to live there at all.

Connor notes that, “Hostility to the Church of Rome in New York generally came from a more educated, intellectual base by this time in the eighteenth century…Proof of this description of secularism and anti-Catholicism came int he aftermath of the Quebec Act and the frightened reaction to it by the Continental Congress. The popular sentiments were echoed in New York by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Hamilton…had a decided distrust of things Catholic.”

The history of the rest of the colonies and how Catholicism always seemed to find a way is fascinating and included in the rest of Fr. Charles Connor’s book Pioneer Priests and Makeshift Altars: A History of Catholicism in the Thirteen Colonies. It turns out that the history of Catholicism in America is rich, varied, and a testament to keeping the faith despite struggle and discrimination. Pick up this book to brush up on some little-known American history.

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