Adding Catholic Color to Monochromatic US History

An interview with Emily Stimpson, co-author of The American Catholic Almanac

The founding of the United States has a lot more color than the typical Protestant narrative, thanks to the heroics, quirks, and sacrifices of American Catholics. In her new book, The American Catholic Almanac, (Image Books, 2014), Emily Stimpson chronicles the saints and sinners who helped shape America from the founding on.

Stimpson, who has also written The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years and These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, spoke with Catholic World Report about the book she co-authored with Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, and some of the surprising finds buried in the pages of time.

CWR: What prompted you and Brian to write this book?

Emily Stimpson: From the earliest days of America’s founding, a large number of the nation’s Protestants argued that democracy and Catholicism weren’t compatible. Those arguments often turned ugly, with nativist groups such as the Know-Nothings burning churches, convents, and Catholic schools, as well as targeting Catholics in their homes. Catholics worked hard to counter that sort of bigotry and secure a place for themselves in this country. To a large extent they succeeded. Unfortunately, in recent years, anti-Catholicism has begun rearing its head again.

Obviously, no one is burning churches just yet, but the same arguments once made against Catholics—that we shouldn’t have a voice in the public square, that we should keep our faith to ourselves, that our beliefs aren’t compatible with democracy—are being made again. Brian and I thought that one way to counter the hostility towards faith in general and Catholicism in particular was by demonstrating the profound effect Catholics have had on this country. America wouldn’t be America without the contributions of the Catholic men and women we write about in the Almanac. The history of Catholicism in America is our family story, and the better we know that story and the better we appreciate it, the better we can face the challenges coming at the Church today.

CWR: The book has an unusual format—it seems to be an “American Catholic History for Busy People.” Is that what you had in mind, particularly with its one-entry-per-day approach?

Stimpson: In part, yes. People are busy and the idea of sitting down and slogging through large, dense history books in order to understand the scope of the Church’s role in building the United States can strike many either as intimidating or not all that appealing. By keeping the entries succinct and varied—something the average person can read in fewer than five minutes a day—we were trying to help people more easily grasp the big picture of Catholic history in America.

Even more important, though, we wanted people to know how rich and interesting our American Catholic story is. Too many people have lost interest in history because bad teachers sucked the life out the past and reduced it to a dry collection of names and dates. And that’s such a shame. Our past is filled with quirky, intriguing, funny, and brilliant people—some wicked, some wonderful— who lived lives as colorful as they were. Their stories are anything but boring, and we wanted to tell as many of those stories as possible. Featuring just one short story per day allowed us to do that.

CWR: What are some of your favorite stories from the book?

Stimpson: There are so many, too many to list, really. But, for starters, there was Archbishop Charles Seghers, who was murdered while establishing Catholic missions in the Alaskan wilderness; Father John Bapst, a holy priest who was tarred and feathered by anti-Catholic mobs in Maine; and Fanny Allen, the daughter of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, who shocked America when she converted to Catholicism and left high society to become the first nun from New England. Then, there was John Ury, who was hung in old New York for the crime of knowing Latin. If he knew Latin, the jury reasoned, he must be a Catholic priest, which was illegal in New York at the time. I also loved the response of New York’s fiery bishop, John Hughes, who threatened to burn the entire city to the ground if one anti-Catholic Nativist so much as lit a match near one of his churches. Not that I recommend any bishops taking that course of action! It’s just that I found his passion in the face of danger so inspiring.

CWR: Did looking at the history of American Catholicism give you any insights into the current issues that plague the Church in the US?

Stimpson: It did. For starters, it helped me to appreciate how good we actually have it. For as hostile as some in our culture are to the Church, no one is burning down our churches. No one is tarring and feathering our priests or shouting bishops out of the pulpits. As Catholics today we have much more freedom to share our message and defend our Church than Catholics of ages past. Then, of course, there are all the wonderful stories of evangelization and conversion we featured in the book. Just because the culture has changed doesn’t mean people’s hearts have changed, and those stories from the past offer today’s bishops, priests, and evangelists inspiration and examples to follow.

I’d also add that in working on the book I came to understand more about why the Church in America is so unique, at least when compared to the Church in Europe. For example, here the Catholic laity are much more involved in the life and ministry of the Church than they are elsewhere. In many ways that stems from Catholics living alongside Protestants and seeing how involved they were in their communities. That occasionally led to problems—such as the battle over Trusteeism—but it also accounts for why so many American laymen and women work for the Church, run apostolates, and dedicate their lives to spreading the Gospel.

I think the same holds true for why American Catholics feel so free to pick and choose which of the Church’s teachings they believe, while European Catholics tend to embrace or reject the Church wholesale. The heresy of Americanism, which reared its head here in the late 19th century and saw both lay and ordained Catholics embracing a kind of American exceptionalism—thinking not all the Church’s “rules” applied to American Catholics—was, in many ways, a forerunner to today’s Cafeteria Catholicism. It’s a bad habit we acquired early on in our history and, unfortunately, it has stuck.

CWR: How did researching/writing this book change your thoughts about the contributions Catholics have made to the US?

Stimpson: I don’t think it changed my thoughts in general about the contributions Catholics have made to this country. I knew going in that those contributions were many and significant. What writing the book did do for me, however, was put a face on those contributions. The more I researched and read about the amazing men and women who built the Church here, the more ashamed I felt for not knowing more about them before. These men are our spiritual mothers and fathers. Some are saints. Many more should be. They sacrificed everything so that we could live freely as Catholics, and we owe them a debt we can never repay.  More about who they are and how they loved needs to be known. We still have much to learn from them. Hopefully, this almanac will make that possible.

CWR: If your readers could take away just one idea from this book, what would you like it be?

Stimpson: If Brian were answering this question, he’d probably say that people should take away an understanding that Catholicism hasn’t been a sidebar in American history, but rather a main point. Our contributions to this country have been enormous, and to forget those contributions or diminish them would be a tragic mistake with long-term consequences. He’s right, of course. But for me, it’s not’s so much an idea I want people to take away as it is a person.

One of the great things about being Catholic is that we know we’re never alone. We have saints walking beside us, accompanying us on this journey to holiness. They intercede for us, they encourage us, and, by their example, they help show us the way. That’s why the Church encourages us to develop spiritual friendships with the saints. They’re essential helps on the journey.

Well, for me, the greatest thing I took away from writing the Almanac was spiritual friendship with the men and women I wrote about: Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, the first bishop of Denver; Father Peter Whelan, the “Angel” of Andersonville Prison; Margaret Haughery, a friend to orphans in 19th-century New Orleans; and so many more. I’ve been blessed and inspired by their example, and I have faith that they’re interceding for me on this project and in all the other work I do. I want the same to hold true for everyone who reads this book. I want them to strike up a friendship with Lucy Burns or Father Emil Kapaun or Dorothy Day and lives their life differently because of that friendship. We can never have too many friends in Heaven, and I think the intercession of these uniquely American “saints” can make a tremendous difference in the course that both our lives and our nation will take.


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About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 51 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor at the Catholic Women's online magazine Theology of Home. She is the author of several books including The Anti-Mary Exposed and the forthcoming Theology of Home.