Most of us are probably familiar with the contributions people like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and soon-to-be-canonized Junipero Serra made to the Catholic Church in America. It is also well known that the colony of Maryland was founded as a haven for English Catholics (the patriarch of Maryland’s founding family, the Calverts, had been removed from his position as Secretary of State for his Catholicism) and that, years later, John Carroll would be named Bishop of Baltimore, the first bishop in the United States. A few people might even know that one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll (John Carroll’s cousin), was Catholic. Just about everyone will know that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected President. Yet, the spread of Catholicism in the United States was largely due to others who, for the most part, have been forgotten by history. Here, we give credit to some of the unsung heroes of the Catholic Church in the United States.
1. Pierre-Jean De Smet, SJ
Beginning in 1838, Fr. Pierre Jean De Smet made more than a dozen trips up and down the Missouri River into what is now the United States to minster to French trappers and traders and to convert the Native Americans along the prairie. He established missions and baptized many Native Americans during his journeys. It is rumored that he also baptized Sitting Bull. Although, Sitting Bull’s multiple wives would have made it difficult for him to join the Church, but he was photographed wearing a Crucifix.
2. Sr. Blandina, “The Fastest Nun in the West”
At the age of 21, Sr. Blandina was sent from the Sister of Charity’s house in Cincinnati to the small mining town of Trinidad, Colorado. There she ministered to the residents of the town and stood up for the rights of Native Americans. “Woe to the poor native! He has no rights that the invading fortune hunters feel obliged to respect,” she wrote to her sister. One day, she accompanied a prisoner from the city jail, past a mob waiting to lynch the man, to the man he shot to ask for forgiveness. This move allowed the man to stand trial, instead of being hanged by the lynch mob. She is most famous for her encounters with Billy the Kid.
One day, Sr. Blandina received word that a member of Billy the Kid’s gang was wounded and was left for dead in a hut. She went to him and nursed him back to health. One day, the man informed her that Billy the Kid was coming to town to kill the four doctors who had refused to treat him. At the appointed hour, Billy the Kid rode into town and was met by Sr. Blandina. The outlaw thanked her for taking care of his companion and asked how he could repay her. She responded by asking him to cancel his plans to kill the doctors. Reluctantly, he agreed and left town. Later, she was transferred by her order to Santa Fe and to Albuquerque where she established hospitals and both Catholic and public schools. During her time in New Mexico, she visited Billy the Kid in jail. It has also been reported that, during a ride on a stagecoach, her fellow passengers became afraid because they had heard Billy the Kid’s gang was nearby and robbing stagecoaches. As a man rode up next to their stagecoach, the men began pulling out their guns. Sr. Blandina quickly told them to put them away. She leaned over and made eye contact with the man on the horse. Upon seeing her, he tipped his hat to her and rode away. It is believed that man was Billy the Kid.
3. Archbishop John Ireland
Born in Ireland, the future archbishop of Saint Paul immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of ten. Five years later, he was sent by Bishop Joseph Cretin, first bishop of Saint Paul, back to Europe to study for the priesthood at the French Marist seminary at Montbel, near Toulon. A few months after his ordination in 1861, he served as a chaplain for the Union Army in the Civil War until 1963. In 1867, he was named rector of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Later, he represented his bishop, Thomas Langdon Grace, at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). Pope Pius IX named Ireland titular bishop of Maronea and vicar apostolic of Nebraska. Bishop Grace immediately left Saint Paul for Rome and successfully petitioned the Holy Father to keep Ireland in Minnesota. Later that year, the Pope named Ireland coadjutor, with right of succession, to the bishop of Saint Paul. As coadjutor Bishop Ireland led the most successful rural colonization ever sponsored by the Catholic Church in the United States. Distressed by the poverty many Catholic families faced on the east coast, Ireland worked with the state government and the railroads to bring more than 4,000 Catholic families from the slums on the east coast to over 400,000 acres of farmland in Minnesota. The Pope raised Saint Paul to an archdiocese. With that, Ireland became an archbishop and rumors began to swirl that he would be named a cardinal, but those rumors never came to fruition. In 1892, when Pope Leo XIII wanted to convince the French Catholics that the future of the Church in France was dependent on the people and not the restoration of the monarchy, Archbishop Ireland was sent to Paris to advocate on the Pope’s behalf. His speech was well received and helped garner the Holy Father’s position. Ireland was also a champion of education, founding the College of Saint Paul (Now the University of Saint Thomas) in 1885 and the seminary of Saint Paul in 1894. One of his most outstanding achievements for the Church in the United States was his cultivation of priests in his archdiocese’s seminary so that he could recommend holy priests for new bishoprics in the upper Midwest. These efforts led to an unprecedented event on May 19, 1910 when Archbishop Ireland served as principal consecrator for six bishops in the chapel at the Saint Paul Seminary. Ireland was also an early advocate for racial equality, writing in 1890 that the United States ought to “obliterate absolutely all color line.” The Vatican asked Ireland in 1898 to enter into diplomatic negotiations with President William McKinley to avoid the Spanish-American War. Although negotiations were not successful in avoiding war, Ireland did earn McKinley’s respect, and in 1900, McKinley asked the archbishop to travel to France and present to them a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette. This resulted in Ireland being invested with the Cross of the Legion of Honor. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, also thought highly of Ireland, appointing him to the Taft Commission which sought to negotiate with the Vatican to purchase land in the Philippines that had belonged to a religious order. Archbishop Ireland’s example of leadership makes him not only a great Catholic, but also a great American.
4. Bishop Thomas O’Gorman
Friend and classmate of Archbishop John Ireland, Fr. Thomas O’Gorman’s first assignment as a newly ordained priest was to serve in Rochester, Minnesota. There, he celebrated Mass in sod huts until he built the town’s first church. He soon gained a reputation as a terrific speaker and spent time touring the east coast. He became the first president of what is now the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1885 and professor of Church History at the Catholic University of America in 1890. While teaching in Washington, D.C., he published A History of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, which greatly influenced Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Longinqua. He was named the second bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls where he accomplished many things including building the beautiful Cathedral of St. Joseph, using the same architect his friend used in Saint Paul. In 1902, he traveled to Rome as a member of the Taft Commission. When Bishop O’Gorman died in 1921, former-President William Howard Taft wrote a letter of condolence, calling him “a warm friend…a cultivated gentleman, an able prelate, and a thorough American. At that point in our nation’s history, it was highly irregular for a Catholic prelate to be praised so, especially by a former president and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The editor of a newspaper in Sioux Falls wrote of him the following: “He was a real leader of men, not only in ecclesiastical, but in large matters of citizenship. The Catholic Cathedral and Columbus College are not [his] biggest monument: the greatest, in my opinion, is the abiding love and respect he had won from all citizens without regard to class or creed. Brick and mortar may become old and commonplace, but the memory of a man’s service to his fellow men is immortal. Sioux Falls, morally and intellectually, is measurably better for Bishop O’Gorman having lived, loved, and labored here.”
5. Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart
In 1856, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart left Quebec with some of her fellow Sisters of Charity of Providence (now Sisters of Providence) and travelled 6,000 miles to Washington territory. Over the next 45 years she established over 30 schools, hospitals, and homes for orphans, the elderly, and the insane in the Seattle/Vancouver area. Mother Joseph had many useful talents including the ability to act as a seamstress, carpenter, painter, sculptor, blacksmith, farmer, watchmaker, locksmith, architect and mechanic. To raise money for all of these projects, she went on very successful begging tours in mining and lumber camps. In recognition for the effect she had on the early development of the state of Washington, the state of Washington declared her birthday as a state holiday and chose her as one of Washington’s two representatives in the National Statutory Hall in our nation’s capital. She has also been inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and the Pugent Sound Business Hall of Fame.
6. Servant of God Augustus Tolton
Servant of God Augustus Tolton was the first African American to be ordained a priest. Three brothers of mixed race (James, Patrick, and Alexander Healy) were ordained before him, but they successfully hid their heritage for fear of discrimination. Born into slavery on April 1, 1854, Tolton grew up in Ralls County, Missouri. When the Civil War broke out, Augustus’ father escaped to the North and enlisted in the Union army. Unfortunately, the elder Tolton was killed in combat. Augustus’ mother then took it upon herself to see her husband’s dream of freedom for their children realized. She took off one day with Augustus and her three other children. She crossed the Mississippi and settled in the town of Quincy, Illinois. The Toltons were able to attend Mass at one of the towns parishes, but the Tolton children were not welcome in the Catholic schools. However, the Sisters of Notre Dame offered to privately tutor the Tolton children. Soon, Augustus began showing an interest in the priesthood and was encouraged by his parish priest, Fr. McGirr, to do so. The priests was initially unsuccessful in getting him placed into a seminary. After years of struggling, Augustus was accepted into the Franciscan College in Quincy as a special student. Two years later Fr. McGirr and some of his brother priests succeeded in enrolling Augustus in the college of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome. Leading up to his ordination, Tolton assumed he would be sent as a missionary to Africa, but the night before his ordination Cardinal in charge of the Propaganda Fidei told him that the United States needed black priests and sent him back to his native-country. “America has been called the most enlightened nation, we will see now whether it deserves the honor. If the United States has never seen a Black priest, it must see one now,” he said to the young man and asked, “Can you drink from this cup?” Fr. Tolton replied in the affirmative, “Posso.” The newly ordained priest was given a parish assignment in Quincy. The young priest was greeted in the town like a war hero. Thousands were present to greet him, and a brass band played. Many were inspired by his teaching and preaching, but his efforts in Quincy were not praised by all. He was on the receiving end of racial slurs and other insults from many in the city, including his fellow priests. To a priest who told him he should not allow whites in his parish, he responded, “We should welcome all people into the church, not send them away.” To shield Fr. Tolton from his tormentors in Quincy, the archbishop of Chicago reassigned him in 1889 to a poor parish in the side of Chicago. The parish, where Fr. Tolton would minister to blacks for the remainder of his life, was so poor they had no place for him to live. The parishioners had to scrape together funds to rent him a nearby apartment. As Fr. Tolton’s reputation grew, he made the acquaintance of Mother Katherine Drexel. The future-saint became his confidant and financed a school for black children near Fr. Tolton’s parish. On July 9, 1897, Fr. Augustus Tolton passed away from heat stroke at the age of 43. His cause for canonization was opened in 2010.
7. Adelhelm Odermatt, OSB
A Native of Switzerland, Adelhelm Odermatt entered the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Angel in Engelberg in 1865 and was sent as a missionary to the United States in 1873. He served in Maryville, Missouri until 1881 when he began a long search for a more permanent home for him and his brother monks. After exploring locations in Omaha, Denver, and San Francisco, Fr. Odermatt settled on a location near the town of Filmore, Oregon. He named the new priory Mount Angel after his mother house in Switzerland. Fr. Odermatt quickly convinced the postmaster to rename Filmore Mount Angel. The locals were so eager to have the monks near them that within two days they had donated $1,200 and a cow to the monks. Following the urges of Portland’s archbishop, Fr. Odermatt and his companions opened a college in 1887, Benedictine Press in 1888, and a seminary in 1889 (the second seminary on the west coast and now the oldest still operating west of the Rocky Mountains). Fr. Odermatt was replaced as prior in 1892 following a fire that destroyed their church, seminary, and monastery, so he could focus all his efforts on fundraising for the new buildings. Thanks to Fr. Odermatt’s efforts during a six year tour of the east to preach and raise funds for his priory, the community was able to move into their new buildings and continued their apostates in 1903. In 1904, the priory was elevated to a monastery. The presence of Fr. Adelhelm Odermatt and his monks helped the area grow and become an agricultural hub. Fr. Odermatt passed away in 1920.
8. Monsignor Francis L. Sampson
Ordained in 1941, Francis Sampson enlisted in the army in 1942 and became chaplain of the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101rst Airborne. Sampson joined his unit in landing behind enemy lines on D-Day. While ministering to the soldiers at a farmhouse the US forces had been using for treating the wounded. When the fighting intensified, most of the injured were moved to a safer location, but some of the more seriously injured men could not be moved. Sampson stayed with them and was captured by enemy forces. Two German soldiers held up against a wall for a rifleman to come over and shoot him. In his memoirs, Sampson records he was so nervous that, instead of repeating the Act of Contrition as he intended to do, he began praying the meal prayer over and over. Another German soldier, who happened to be Catholic, recognized him as a Chaplain and saved him from being killed. After being interrogated, he was released. He and his unit were also involved in Operation Market-Garden in Holland where he was nearly captured again. Three months later, he was captured again and sent to Stalag II A. During the six day journey to the stalag, he was without food and water, and the train was repeatedly attacked by Allied troops. After four months of imprisonment, the camp was liberated by Russian forces, and he returned to the United States six months later. Following World War II, Sampson continued to serving as an Army chaplain through the Korean War and beyond, advancing to the rank of Major General and the position of Chief of Chaplains. He served in this capacity from 1967 until his retirement from the Army in 1971.
Certainly, the many religious sisters, who traveled all over this nation and established schools and hospitals, deserve recognition for helping cultivate the Catholic Church in the United States. So many of these women will not find their names in a history textbook, but they are, nonetheless, worthy of our gratitude.
10. Parish Priests
There are many priests who have gone unrecognized over the years for their missionary zeal that spread Catholicism across this country. These men had to endure harsh climates and celebrate Mass in makeshift churches while trying to raise funds for and build a permanent church building. Their names might have been lost to history, but their legacy continues on in the hearts of the faithful who benefit from their many sacrifices and struggles.
If you know of any other unsung heroes of the Catholic Church in the United States, please share their names and stories in the comments below!