More Catholic Than You Think

This Ad Rem is being written at a distance from home (near Fort Worth, Texas, to be almost precise). It seemed a good idea to share with readers part of the message of the Catholic America Tour. Though the talk presented at each stop bears the same title — “Toward a Catholic America: History, Goals, and Methods” — the various presentations of it feature different saints or other great American apostles who strove to establish Catholicity in our land. Often these are planned to coincide with our venue. (For instance, Saint Louis was a good place to present Father Damen, who lived, worked, and is buried there.) Each talk has something of a changeable “proper” part, but all the talks have an “ordinary” that does not change, at least not substantially.

The presentation begins by making two points. The first is that America’s history is more Catholic than most people are generally aware — “More Catholic Than You Think.” The second point is that the Protestant British (God bless them!1) undermined and obstructed the Catholic enterprise here; and, more tragically, the Anglo-American Catholicism that came with the Maryland colonizers was a weak, timid, all-too-impressed-with-their-fellow-countrymen-who-were-heretics type of religion. I shall save that second point, with its too-long hyphenated adjective, for another time. Now I would like to focus on the first point, our too-secret Catholic history.

There is evidence that in the patristic era, in the 400’s, there were North African monks who sailed to America fleeing the Vandals (see “The Salvation of the Pre-Columbian Amerindians” and skip down to the paragraph after footnote 13). When we recall that Saint Augustine lay dying as Genseric’s Vandals invaded Hippo, we are left to wonder if these fifth-century American visitors were not known to the Doctor of Grace. If they really did get here, they would have been the first Catholic presence in our land. Later, Saint Brendan the Navigator is known to have sailed here in the 500s. His account of the journey, the Navigatio, was used by a man named Tim Severin to reproduce that voyage in the same kind of boat Saint Brendan used. Whereas people used to scoff that such a voyage was possible, Severin proved it so. In about 1000, the newly converted Catholic Leif Erikson was in North America, in territory now part of Canada, but also part of the U.S.: his Vinland may have reached as far south as New York City. He named it Vinland, by the way, because grapes could grow here, unlike in his native land. Wine, an essential for Catholics (for the Holy Sacrifice at least), could be made here. (About Erikson and Vinland, see articles here, here, and here.) In the next century — 1170 — a Catholic Welsh contingent is said to have landed in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and eventually intermarried with the Indians. The presence of suspiciously pale-faced looking Indians, with gray and green eyes, occasionally blond hair, and who use Welsh-style round boats, lends credence to this theory. (Yes, this is a very controversial theory, but accounts of Welsh-speaking Indians are too many to disregard entirely. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that there is likely some foundation to the “legend.” For the story of Prince Madoc and the possible connection to the Manda Indians, see this book, and this article. Google will bring oodles of results searching these terms.) In 1398, Henry St. Clair, the Earl of Orkney, is known to have founded a colony in Nova Scotia. From there, some believe he sent an expedition south to what is now Newport, RI, where a tower stands that is typical of those built in Northern Europe in the fourteenth century. This tower is defiant of explanations other than its being built by fourteenth-century Northern Europeans. And of course, a little more than one hundred years later, a Genoan Third Order Franciscan would land on the island of San Salvador and claim the New World for the Spanish Crown, under whose patronage he sailed. That Christopher Columbus was a Franciscan Tertiary is passed over by many history books.

In our English language American history textbooks, authors tend to skip from Columbus in 1492 to the failed 1607 English colony at Jamestown, and then to the 1620 landing of the Mayflower’s “Pilgrim Fathers” — I guess after dwelling a bit on how mean the Spaniards were to indigenous people. But let us resist the historical whitewash our Protestant countrymen have put on American history. As early as 1526, the Spaniards had a mission in what is now South Carolina (the mission was named, San Miguel de Guadalupe), and in 1528, a Spanish Franciscan was appointed bishop of Florida. His name was Father Juan Juarez. That was only thirty-six years after Columbus’ discovery, and fifteen after Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida on Easter Sunday, naming it with the very liturgical name that has stuck to this day (Florida Pascua — Flowery Pasch — is Easter in Spanish). Roughly thirty-eight years before Jamestown, Florida had a bishop.

The Spanish did not confine themselves to Florida. In 1542, the Franciscan chaplain to the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, one Father Juan de Padilla, was slain on a spot in Quivira, becoming the proto-martyr of United States territory. Quivira is known to us as Kansas, roughly the geographical center of our nation.

For more photos, please see “Photos: Scene of Fray Juan Padilla’s Martyrdom” on this site.

In 1565, the Spanish founded the oldest U.S. city, St. Augustine, Florida. Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles named it that because he spotted the peninsula on the Feast of Saint Augustine, August 28. Spain would also found, in 1609, a place called La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Assisi, “the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” We know it as Santa Fe, New Mexico. By 1625, there were forty-three churches serving 34,000 Catholic Indians in Santa Fe. Before the Pilgrim Fathers landed in 1620, there were Catholic Indians on a thriving mission on this continent!

How much of our continental United States saw a Spanish presence? Spain claimed the entire East Coast, explored in 1525 by Esteban Gomez. The Spanish had flourishing missions in California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Florida. They at least explored Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia (Spanish territory when the British invaded it in 1607 — eight Jesuits were martyred on the exact spot of Jamestown in 1570) and Georgia (where they gave us five Franciscan martyrs in a failed mission), North Carolina, and South Carolina. Eventually, the people who sent Columbus here would explore/evangelize half of what is now our continental United States.

From 1542 to 1834, eighty Spanish missionary priests and brothers would be martyred: mostly Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. From its discovery of the New World until 1822, Spain would send 16,000 missionaries to its territories in the Western Hemisphere, many in what is now U.S. territory.

And what of the French? The name Marquette is immortalized in the American Midwest and South. Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) was a Jesuit priest and Indian missionary, who, with explorer Louis Joliet, found the northern portion of the Mississippi River, which, by the way, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto had named Río del Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit) in 1541. Marquette named it the River of the Immaculate Conception. The importance of Marquette’s discovery cannot be overlooked: He discovered, as it were, the spinal column of the continental United States, and in so doing, opened up a vast territory for exploration and evangelization. Eventually, in 1718, the French would found New Orleans and, in 1764, Saint Louis, naming it after the great French King and Crusader.

So what is the extent of the French presence here in the United States? Quite wide. At one time, they laid claim to a huge “V” of land extending its left arm to the Rockies, its bottom part to Louisiana, and its right arm up to Lake Ontario. A large chunk of it — roughly the west side of the Mississippi River Valley plus a little lagniappe — gave us the Louisiana Purchase. The French explored Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana. They re-explored some states the Spanish had explored, such as: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Nebraska.

Besides Father Marquette, the French who brought Catholic Faith and civilization here would include the settlers and colonizers of Canada, like Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Robert de LaSalle (who brought French settlers to Illinois), and, of course, the North American Martyrs.

With this very quick romp through the pre-Columbian, Spanish, and French adventures in the New World, we set the stage for the next part: the arrival of the Anglo-Protestants, and the detrimental effect of their presence to the Catholic cause in America.

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1 By an immemorial custom of the Southland, where I am presently residing, it is proper manners to say “God bless her (him, them),” when saying something bad about people. Some find this charming. To quote Saint Ambrose: When in Texas, do as the Texans do.