July 2020 Print

America’s Deeply Catholic Beginnings

By Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D., S.T.L.


In the minds of many, the American story is a Protestant story. And yet, a closer examination of historical facts reveals the unexpected: the deeply Catholic beginnings of the United States and Canada. Although long ignored by most academics, since the early twentieth century leading non-Catholic historians have pioneered the reappraisal of North America’s Catholic roots. Eminent among these was Herbert Eugene Bolton (1870-1953), the University of California intellectual who in 1932 became president of the American Historical Association. Honored by ten colleges and universities in the United States and Canada with their highest degrees, he was also acclaimed internationally, notably by Pope Pius XII who in 1949 named him “Knight of St. Sylvester.” In some 90 publications, such as Outpost of Empire (1931), Rim of Christendom (1936) and the address, “The Epic of Greater America,” he showed that Americans can only understand their national identity by taking a holistic view of all the precolonial and colonial contexts, notably the Spanish and French ones.

In The Colonization of North America 1492-1783, he devoted one-third of its content to the Catholic expeditions and settlements that occurred before the Pilgrim Fathers disembarked from the Mayflower at Plymouth in 1620. His writings disclose the mind of an outsider to Catholicism who is frequently astonished at, and in poignant admiration for, the Catholics who with intelligence and daring, sweat and muscle set about building Catholic regional societies that benefited all the races of North America. With a master-historian’s expertise, Bolton, along with the agnostic Francis Parkman and others, unfolded how true was Leo XIII’s declaration to Americans: “The names newly given to so many of your towns, rivers, mountains and lakes show, and clearly witness to how deeply your beginnings were marked with the footprints of the Catholic Church.” By confronting these facts, we will discover that there were also Catholic Fathers of the USA and Canada.

The Viking Catholics Who Waded Ashore

The saga of the Catholic presence in North America begins in two locations: amid the mists of history in Greenland and somewhere on the east coast of our continental mainland.

Greenland had been colonized by Eric the Red with 14 ships of settlers in 985 A.D. In 999, Eric’s 19-year-old son, Leif, “a large and powerful man, and of a most imposing bearing, a man of wisdom and a very just man in all things,” spent a winter at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason. At the persuasion of Olaf, Leif decided to convert to the Catholic Faith. He returned to Greenland with a priest and, on arrival, during the winter of 1000-1001, informed his family about his new-found faith. His father was furious but his mother, Thjodhild, embraced Catholicism and founded the first church at Brattahlid “and there she and those people who had accepted Christianity, and they were many, offered up their prayers there.” Leif “soon preached Christianity and the Catholic Faith throughout the land; and he communicated King Olaf Tryggvason’s message to people and told them how much excellence and great glory there was in this Faith.”

Many Greenlanders had become Catholic by the early 1100s. In 1124, according to the Saga of Einar Sokkesson, the Catholics sent a delegation under Sokkesson to King Sigurd the Crusader (1090-1130) to ask for a resident bishop. The king proposed Arnaldur, a priest at the royal court, as the first bishop of Gardar (now Igaliku). Arnaldur, after a few useless protests about his unworthiness, was consecrated by the Archbishop of Lund, who had received the authority from Rome to name and ordain bishops for the area. He arrived in Greenland in 1126 after a year in Iceland, and pioneered the Diocese of Gardar, the very first North American diocese.

It flourished under Arnaldur’s 26 years of leadership since “Bishop Arnold seems to have been a typical medieval prelate, humble and devout in private life, but zealous and unbending in all matters touching what he regarded as the rights of his office and his diocese.” Over the years the Norse Catholics built some 16 stone churches, among them the cross-shaped sandstone cathedral, 82 feet long, amid whose ruins we can still stand and pray in mystic fellowship with our ancient Viking brothers and sisters, filled with admiration for their faith.

The Church grew over three centuries in the land of ice-filled fjords, flowering plains and countless glaciers, under the leadership of the bishops of Gardar whose lineage we can trace over centuries in the records of the Vatican archives. The population seems to have peaked at around 10,000 in the 1300s.

“But the dawn is brief and the day full often belies its promise” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion). A gradual decline seized hold of the Catholic Church in Greenland caused by politics, ecclesiastical neglect, and economics, exacerbated by the wild climate and geographical isolation. In 1448, Pope Nicholas V, worried about reports of priest-less Greenland, wrote that the Greenlanders “have been consequently during these 30 years past without the comfort and ministry of bishop or priest, unless someone of a very zealous disposition, and at long intervals, and in spite of danger from the raging sea, ventured to visit the island and minister to them in those churches which the barbarians had left standing.” A letter of the Borgia pontiff, Alexander VI (1492-1503), written in 1492, although silent about the ecclesiastical and political causes, nevertheless sounds an ominous warning bell, reminding us that the fate of the Church in any land or century, depends largely on the actions and omissions of men.

Then there was the mysterious colony on the eastern coast of the U.S.A. and Canada. The documentary evidence is quite insistent: various ancient sources narrate that Irish monks somewhere founded a Christian oasis that in Icelandic sagas and their Annals of Greenland is named Hvitramannaland, “Whiteman’s Land,” or Irland It Mikla, (Greater Ireland), located westward in the sea near Vinland the Good. It lasted as late as the year 1000 with an active Catholic presence, as implied by the account in the Landnámabók of a pagan Icelander, Ari Marsson, who, driven off course, landed there in 983 and was baptized.

Junípero Serra y Ferrer, O.F.M. was a Roman Catholic Spanish priest and friar of the Franciscan Order. He is credited with establishing the Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda. He later founded a mission in Baja California and the first nine of 21 Spanish missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco, in what was then Spanish-occupied Alta California in the Province of Las Californias, New Spain. Pope Francis canonized Serra on September 23, 2015 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., during his first visit to the United States. Serra’s missionary efforts earned him the title of “Apostle of California.”

Archeology has now confirmed that the Vikings had one or more settlements on the eastern shores of present-day Canada or the U.S.A, close to Irland It Mikla. Leif, son of Eric the Red, on his return voyage to Greenland from Norway in 1000 A.D., went off course and discovered the area the Vikings named “Vinland.” For this information we are indebted to the sober accounts in the sagas of Thorfinn Karlsefni, preserved in 28 manuscripts. In 1003 it was the same Karlsefni who founded a colony somewhere on the American coast, which, however, ended after three years due to internal dissensions.

But there were other longer-lasting settlements in Vinland as we know thanks to the discoveries in the 1960s of a Norse community at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Archaeologists have dated this settlement as a thousand years old. Since the Norse population of Greenland was probably significantly Catholic by 1090, the Catholic presence in Vinland is a reasonable assumption. There is also the tantalizing reference in six different vellums of the Icelandic annals meagerly mentioning that in 1121 “Bishop Eric set out from Greenland to find Vinland.” Eric was not a bishop of Greenland but a missionary bishop, probably from Norway or Iceland, who had gone to Greenland to ordain priests and perform other tasks, and, while there, decided to continue on to the colony of Vinland. No more is known about the mysterious prelate, and, for all we know, he may have spent the rest of his life building up the Catholic Church on mainland North America.

Therefore, historically we can say that the first altar was established as early as the 11th century on the coasts of Greenland and probably also on Vinland; that Viking ships anchored, a Catholic priest waded ashore, planted the Cross, and the North American continent heard the intoning of the sacred words of the Traditional Latin Mass and saw the white host raised to bless it and claim it for the Lord Jesus Christ.

To Florida, The Rockies, and the Alamo

Five centuries later, other Catholics disembarked and pioneered the New World’s wilderness, plains and mountains, rivers and lakes from St. Augustine in Florida to Los Angeles in California, from the Alamo (“San Antonio de Valero”) in Texas to Le Détroit du Lac Érie.

To Florida arrived Ponce de León in 1513. Indeed, the area received its name from the fact that it had first been seen by the Spaniards on Pascua Florida [Easter Sunday]. In September 1540 the Francisco Vásquez de Coronado expedition which included Fr. Juan de Padilla, was already at the Grand Canyon and the Rockies. In 1542, Fr. Padilla, while establishing the first Catholic mission in the present-day United States, was riddled with arrows on the plains of Kansas and so became the proto-martyr of the nation.

By May 21, 1542, strong arms in dust-covered robes had carried the cross on the longest march ever made on the American continent as priests trekked with the De Soto expedition through Georgia, into the Carolinas, through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, continuing into Arkansas and Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. “Had the priests with De Soto,” wrote the historian John Gilmary Shea, “been able to say Mass, the march of the Blessed Sacrament and of the Precious Blood across the continent would have been complete.” Nevertheless, priests had preached the Faith on both sides of the Mississippi, already christened since 1519 with the splendid name “Río del Espíritu Santo.”

September 8, 1565 heard Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales offer the Sacrifice at the foundation of the oldest city in the nation, St. Augustine in Florida. Within a hundred years, the tireless missionaries of the region had established over 40 settlements for some 26,000 Native Americans reaching as far north as St. Catherine’s Island off the coast of Georgia, bearing names such as Ascension, Our Lady of the Rosary, and St. Joseph.

In 1598, nine years before the English landed in Jamestown, ten Franciscan friars had arrived with Juan de Oñate and Spanish settlers to New Mexico which they named Santa Fe. There they built San Gabriel, the first permanent settlement in the area.

In 1691, Damian Massenet, Franciscan chaplain of an expedition into Texas, camped on the site of what is now the city of San Antonio, christening the new settlement with the name of the day’s saint, Anthony of Padua. 1718 saw the foundation of the first mission, “San Antonio de Valero” (better known today as the Alamo). The founder of the San José Mission was the Venerable Antonio Margil, popularly known as “the Flying Padre,” who frequently traveled barefoot about 50 miles per day. He started hundreds of missions in a never-a-pause lifetime of activity that ranged from the tropical forests of Costa Rica to east Texas and the borders of Louisiana.

The trailblazers in the Mid-West and the West included priests like Francisco Garcés, who, in 1775, led the first recorded white people to enter Nevada. The same year in Utah saw Fathers Escalante and Dominguez follow the river flowing through Spanish Fork Canyon which they named Río de Aguas Calientes (Spanish Fork River). On September 24 they gazed at the lake and broad valley of Nuestra Señora de los Timpanogotiz (Utah Lake and Valley), which they described as “the most pleasing, beautiful, and fertile site in all New Spain.”

In the 19th century Catholics were often frontiersmen in one way or another. Notable among them were men like Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Apostle of the Rockies, Fr. Ravalli of Montana and Idaho, and Fr. Lucien Galtier in Minnesota who built a log chapel dedicated to St. Paul in 1841, around which the city of the same name grew up.

To Quebec and Northern and Western America

A transparently clear instance of “Catholic colonialism,“ radiant in the purity of its beginnings, was the foundation of what is now Montréal in the province of Québec. The inspiration was born in the heart of a French layman known for his mystical prayer, Jérome de Dauversière, who became convinced that he should found a mission in the area of the upper St. Lawrence River. Thanks to the fervent faith of Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, a soldier, and the efforts of 35 Frenchmen who wanted to establish a center of evangelization for the Native Americans, the project took off. Before these brave men and women set sail, they gathered under the great Fr. Jean-Jacques Olier in Notre Dame Cathedral to consecrate themselves and their project to the Blessed Virgin Mary. On arrival in May 1632, they named their settlement “Ville Marie” (present-day Montréal), sang the Veni Creator Spiritus, and proceeded to spend the first day in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

That was Catholicism in action: noble men and women dedicated to bringing all that was good, true and holy to their fellow men and women in North America, even though it meant leaving behind their lovely land and relatives in Europe. The purity of their motives and conduct is a fragrance also present in the history of the other Catholics who founded what became the intensely Catholic land of Québec.

Notable among these were the “Black Robes,” the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus. From the early 1600s, some of France’s most imposing youth crossed the Atlantic to pour out their lifeblood in North America.

Their first headquarters was in Québec, from where Jesuits spread out to open up mission territories among the Hurons in Ontario, Michigan and Ohio; with the Iroquois of New York and the Abnakis in Maine; among the Chippewas, Algonquins and Ottawas in Wisconsin and Michigan; with the Illinois; and finally, among the Creeks and other tribes, in Louisiana.

The most famous Black Robe explorer is Jacques Marquette (1637-75). Described by his superior as a man of “wonderfully gentle ways,” he made a deep impression on the Native Americans. Understandably so, for besides his natural winsomeness, by his 38th year the priest had already learned six native dialects during his work with the Illinois, the Pottawatomis, the Foxes, the Hurons, the Ottawas, the Mackinacs, and the Sioux. His demeanor exuded an exceptionally sensitive love for God. Parkman spoke movingly of the French priest’s devotion to the Immaculée in whose honor he named the last mission he founded, seven weeks before his death “amid the forests.”

In 1673 he and Louis Jolliet, together with five companions, set out in birch bark canoes from St. Ignace (Michigan) in answer to the plea of tribesmen, among them some Illinois, who had visited the priest to ask that he visit their homeland close to a great river. Plying their paddles across the waters, they traveled more than 2,000 miles through the wilderness, becoming the first Europeans to see and chart the northern part of the Mississippi which they showed as emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not—as had been thought up to then—into the Pacific somewhere in California. On the journey they had spent the winter of 1674 in the area of what is now Chicago. Bancroft, writing about such Black Robes, exclaimed in admiration: “Not a cape was turned, or a river entered, but a Jesuit led the way.”

All North American Catholics can claim spiritual sonship of the martyrs Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) and companions. The Hurons named Brébeuf “Echon” meaning either “healing tree” or “he who bears the heavy load,” either because he had brought them medicines or because the strongly-built priest had usually carried more than his share of the load on journeys, or perhaps for both reasons. On March 16, 1649 the Iroquois captured Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant near Georgian Bay. The account of their deaths is not for the faint-hearted. The capturers fastened them to stakes, scalped and mutilated them, poured boiling water over their bodies, and applied fire and necklaces of red-hot hatchets to their skin. Not a single cry escaped the lips of Brébeuf. The Iroquois, in awe at such superhuman courage, later cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to receive some of his spirit.

It was the heroic end of a 15-year saga filled with the stuff of daily heroism, as he, in a matter-of-fact manner and with a touch of humor, wrote in a letter of 1636 to the ardent young Jesuits in France who were hoping to join him: “When you reach the Hurons…you will arrive at a time of the year when fleas will keep you awake almost all night. And this petty martyrdom, to say nothing of mosquitoes, sand flies, and suchlike gentry, lasts usually not less than three or four months of the summer.”

Catholics and the Native Americans

The New World chronicles of the 15th-19th centuries open a window onto a landscape of priests who are simply larger-than-life figures, men who placed keen minds, noble hearts and tireless bodies as shields for the dignity of Native Americans. They must never be forgotten. As in any picture involving fallen men, there will always be shadows. However, the blazing truth is that thanks to Catholic priests, who left behind family, friends, comfort and culture in order to live with, and for, the peoples of the New World, racial integration through marriage and not segregation came to be the norm in the Americas, at least everywhere politicians didn’t stonewall the Church’s efforts as happened in Anglo-Saxon North America.

Protestant historians and other intellectuals are critical of the Anglo-Saxon colonization of America and at times highlight how different was the Catholic approach. C. S. Lewis remarked, “The English…had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’.” How different were the Catholics! As the historian, John Tracey Ellis, commenting on the Spanish missionaries (but the same could be said of the French and of the Portuguese also) remarked:

“There was an element of compassion for the red man as a child of God in the ideology of the Spanish missionaries that was entirely lacking in the attitude of most of the English settlers along the Atlantic Coast. It was the conviction that he had a soul worth saving that inspired their extraordinary sacrifices in his behalf. That, and that alone, will explain the dogged persistence with which the missionaries pushed on in the face of repeated setbacks and tragedies such as the murder of Fray Juan de Padilla, their protomartyr, on the plains of Kansas in 1542. How otherwise can one account for the fact that so many highly gifted priests like the Tyrolese Jesuit, Eusebio Kino, and Junipero Serra, the Franciscan from Majorca, both university-trained men, should abandon their cultivated surroundings to dedicate their lives to the moral and material uplift of these savage people?”

Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was a French Jesuit settlement in Wendake, the land of the Wendat, near modern Midland, Ontario, from 1639 to 1649. It was the first European settlement in what is now the province of Ontario. Eight missionaries from Sainte-Marie were martyred, and were canonized in 1930. Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was established French Jesuit Fathers Jérôme Lalemant and Jean de Brébeuf.

The deeply moving scene, described by the historian Francis Parkman, of Jesuit priests caring for the sick among Hurons suffering from a smallpox epidemic, was repeated thousands of times over throughout North and Latin America:

“But when we see them, in the gloomy February of 1637 and the gloomier months that followed, toiling on foot from one infected town to another, wading through the sodden snow, under bare and dripping forests, drenched with incessant rains, till they descried at length through the storms the clustered dwellings of some barbarous hamlet. When we see them entering one after another these wretched abodes of misery and darkness, and all for one sole end, the baptism of the sick and dying…we must needs admire the self-sacrificing zeal with which it was pursued.”

We cannot overestimate the importance of what all this priestly heroism achieved. A new race—the mestizos—came into existence, born of the marriages between European Catholics and Native Americans. Under the teaching and vigilance of so many priests, the Spanish, French and Portuguese colonists recognized the equal dignity of the natives. It wasn’t just a matter of flowery speeches but of concrete actions. For what action could have been more concrete than the thousands of marriages the priests performed between Europeans and Native Americans? They married them, baptized their offspring, and educated them. Then the Church crowned and sealed their dignity by raising some of the natives to the highest rank in Catholicism—canonized saints—as occurred with the mulatto St. Martin de Porres—whom all Catholics, whether black, mulatto or white, pope or peasant, bend the knee to as heroes, and pray to as intercessors.

If only the Church had been allowed to do the same in Anglo-Saxon America as she did in Latin America! The Church’s achievement in Latin America stands out by contrast with the history of relations between the Native Americans and colonists in the north where the Church, in a socio-political context often hostile to Catholicism, was hindered in her efforts to evangelize and promote integration. It is somewhat painful to recall the degree of anti-Catholicism in the U.S.A. that prevented the Church fulfilling her mission. Even in the 13 colonies, Catholics were barely tolerated from the early 1700s, in spite of the fact that the Catholic colony in Maryland, founded by Lord Baltimore, had welcomed all Christian groups. The 1704 decree of the Parliament of Baltimore forbidding Catholics to educate, or even to serve the Mass in public, is worthy of indignation to this very day.

The Natives themselves generally recognized all the benefits of the missions and, with few exceptions, loved the Catholic priests they came into contact with. A report to the Church’s missionary headquarters in Rome (Propaganda Fide) in 1821 stated: “They have a great veneration for the Black Robes (so do they call the Jesuits). They tell how the Black Robes slept on the ground, exposed themselves to every privation, and did not ask for money.”

A staunch Scottish Protestant, Alexander Forbes, although quite critical of the Misiones in some aspects, nevertheless stated:

“The best and most unequivocal proof of the good conduct of the Franciscan Fathers is to be found in the unbounded affection and devotion invariably shown towards them by their Indian subjects. They venerate them, not only as friends and fathers, but with a degree of devotedness approaching to adoration. On the occasion of the removals which have taken place of late years for political causes, the distress of the Indians in parting with their pastors has been extreme. They have entreated to be allowed to follow them in their exile, with tears and lamentations, and with all the demonstrations of true sorrow and unbounded affection. Indeed, if there ever existed an instance of the perfect justice and propriety of the comparison of the priest and his disciples to a shepherd and his flock it is in the case of which we are treating.”

The Catholic difference was due to the Catholic worldview. It was summed up by the first words in the travel log of one of the first explorers of North America, a Protestant convert to Catholicism and a layman, Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635): “The salvation of a single soul is worth more than the conquest of an empire.”