A Truly Catholic History of North America

Recognizing the foundational Catholic roots of North American history, says historian Dr. Kevin Starr, author of Continental Ambitions, helps put away faulty narratives and negative stereotypes.

Acclaimed historian and author Dr. Kevin Starr holds a BA from the University of San Francisco, an MA and PhD from Harvard University, and a Master of Library Science from UC Berkeley. He has served as both the City Librarian of San Francisco and the State Librarian for California, and in 2010 was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. He is currently a Professor History at the University of Southern California, where he is a director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, Dr. Starr is also the author of several books, six of which are part of his “Americans and the California Dream” series, published by Oxford University Press. His writing has has earned him multiple fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees. 

His most recent book, Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience (Ignatius Press, 2016), is the culmination of years of study. Dr. Starr recently corresponded with CWR about his research into the history of Catholicism in North America. 

CWR: How did your work as a historian and scholar lead up to this particular work of history? 

Dr. Kevin Starr: In my “Americans and the California Dream” series, I make frequent mention and sometimes give extensive treatment to Catholic themes in the emergence of California.  Of course, the more developed California became, the more ecumenical it became in terms of the religious traditions flourishing here.  Still, many critics who have studied the entire series detect an undeclared but persistent Catholicity in my approach.  As a graduate student at Harvard, studying under the late Alan Heimert, Powell Cabot Professor of American Literature, I was sensitized to the pervasive importance of religion in the creation of American culture.  This sensitivity dovetailed with my previous life experience, beginning with the fact that I was raised by the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose at their Albertinium home in Ukiah in my earliest years and continued my education through my bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco in the years that followed in Catholic institutions.  Thus as an Americanist, I always had a lively interest in the Catholic dimension of the American experience, and in middle age I began to read in this field.  When my “Americans and the California Dream” series reached a conclusion, I knew that it was long since time that I addressed the saga of Catholicism in North America, beginning with the Scandinavian settlement of Greenland and Vineland.  

CWR: You state, in the Preface of Continental Ambitions, that “American Catholics need to regain their sense of being a historical people. … It is time for American Catholics to repossess and to learn from the story of their North American pilgrimage…” What are some examples of how Catholics can benefit from learning more about the Catholic Church’s place in the history of North America? 

Dr. Starr: Deep down within the psychology of most American Catholics, our Catholic tradition is perceived as having its origins in the great waves of immigration of the mid-19th century.  All that went before, beginning with the Catholic settlement of Greenland around the year 1000 is not internalized as part of the usable Catholic past.  On the other hand, as I demonstrate in Continental Ambitions, New Spain, New France, and Catholic Maryland are definitely part of our American usable past, especially now that American society encompasses so much of the Hispanic New World experience.  From such a recognition, I believe, Catholics can re-center themselves not as immigrants to the American experience but as founding members of that experience.  This sense of being there at the beginning, being foundational, should help American Catholics achieve a new sense of belonging to America not merely by adoption or reluctant acceptance but by foundational effort.  Such a conviction, moreover, could very well help us resist any effort to consider Catholicism as an eccentric, Johnny-come-lately form of Christianity and could very well help Catholics resist the current bullying to which we are frequently subjected because of our belief.

CWR: As an historian and a professor, what are the challenges involved in getting students and readers to appreciate history in general and, more specifically, the history of Catholicism in early American history?

Dr. Starr: One of my favorite phrases is that of Van Wyck Brooks when he cited history as “the search for a usable past” as animating historical inquiry.  History, in other words, is a contemplative and speculative enterprise, as well as an exercise in humanities and social science.  It is also a branch of literature.  But history also serves practical needs.  To have a better idea of where we have been means that we have a better chance of having a better idea of where we are and where we will be as a society.  Roman Catholicism goes back 2,000 years.  For a thousand of those years, Roman Catholic people have in one way or another been connected to the North American enterprise.  The United States, Canada, and Mexico each in differing ways finds in the story of Catholicism perhaps the most important element in their cumulative identity.

CWR: The poet and literary critic Dana Gioia says your book provides “the untold story of the United States.” Generally speaking, what is the standard history found in most schools, and in what ways does your history differ from it? What are some of the untold aspects that you wished to write about and emphasize in your work? 

Dr. Starr: As Dana Gioia has pointed out, Continental Ambitions, as far as the United States is concerned, does not treat American Hispanics as late arrivals but as foundational figures in the emergence of North American culture.  Nor does Continental Ambitions consider the Catholic culture of New France as merely a colorful interval before British conquest.  Nor – and this is as important as any topic I address – does Continental Ambitions consider Native America as something over and done with but, rather, an ongoing factor in the culture and bloodlines of the North American continent, in Mexico especially, but also in the American Southwest and the maritime colonies and western provinces of Canada.  So too do Catholic people and thought play an important role in the creation of the United States through the Declaration of Independence and through eight years of harsh and demanding warfare against Great Britain.  In Continental Ambitions I tell each of these stories without exaggerating them – but without suppressing them either as has too often been the case in American historiography.

CWR: In the opening chapter (“Santo Domingo 1511”) you refer to the “paradoxical behavior of Spaniards in the New World”: on one hand evangelistic and on the other hand often destructive. Why was there such a conflicted and often contradictory approach to relationships with various native tribes in the 16th century? Overall, how would you describe that relationship? 

Dr. Starr: The Spanish response to the Caribbean in the first half of the 16th century rested on a doctrine of encomienda, which is to say, that the labor of the people living on the land belonged to those who owned the land, whether through conquest or purchase.  Thus Spain, then entering a Golden Age of Spanish Catholicism, was also entering an era of unparalleled economic exploitation in the Caribbean. 

While a desire to evangelize Native America remained on the books, it was overwhelmed by a concurrent desire to appropriate the labor of Native America, in mining especially, and work entire peoples to death.  Those who were not enslaved and worked to death were conquered as if they were so much fauna on the land.  Indeed, a pseudo-intellectual effort was made by some Spaniards to describe Native Americans as not fully human.  The Dominicans were the first to rise up in protest, which is why Bartolomeo Las Casas, a secular priest, joined the Dominicans in middle age: so that he could become part of the defense of Native Americans launched in Santo Domingo in 1511.  

CWR: What was the significance of the founding of Saint Augustine, in Florida, in 1565? What is the lasting legacy of the Spanish throughout the southern United States?

Dr. Starr: First of all, the founding of St. Augustine brought European urbanism to North America.  At the same time, however, the building of the fortifications protecting St. Augustine was performed by involuntary Native American Labor.  Thus St. Augustine embodied the fundamental paradox of the Spanish Catholic presence in the New World: a persistent, desperate even, effort to reconcile evangelical and continental ambitions.  On the other hand, in bringing European-style urbanism to North America, St. Augustine prefigured and helped actualize a string of urbanized settlements – Santa Fe, San Antonio, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco – that continued to flourish to this day along with the cities – Quebec, Three Rivers, Montreal, New Orleans (a doubly founded enterprise), Mobile, Biloxi, St. Louis – founded by New France.  New Spain and New France, in short, prefigured and helped actualize the United States as a city-centric civilization.  

CWR: What role did various orders—Franciscans, Dominicans, the Society of Jesus—play in Catholic missions in California in the 1700s?

Dr. Starr: Baja California was initially evangelized by the Society of Jesus.  When the Jesuits were suppressed and expelled from New Spain, Baja California was divided between Franciscans and Dominicans and Alta California was assigned to Franciscans, who constituted the clergy of this region until the mid-1840s when the first diocesan clergy made their appearance.  In the larger story of Continental Ambitions, embracing Spanish, French, and English Catholicism, various orders – Jesuits, Dominicans, Recollect Franciscans, Capuchin Franciscans, Sulpicians, Paris Foreign Missioners, and an occasional Carmelite, Mercedarian, and Hieronymite make appearances – along with a steadily increasing body of diocesan clergy in New France.  Each of these orders encountered a similar set of challenges: protect and evangelize the Native Americans, see to the spiritual needs of European colonials, establish missions and/or mission stations, deal with the local colonial power structure, the military especially, seek and secure support from the order in the colonial capital or in Europe. 

CWR: What was the significance of San Francisco by the late 1700s? And what were some of the accomplishments of the Franciscans in the various mission regions of the Spanish Southwest?

Dr. Starr: By the 1790s, the San Francisco Bay Area constituted the northernmost settlement of New Spain on the Pacific Coast.  It was at once a military presidio, the location of two missions (San Francisco and Santa Clara) and a civilian settlement (pueblo) in San Jose.  By the early 1800s, moreover, San Francisco Bay was serving a small but steadily growing maritime trade.  The Franciscan mission system continued to expand through the 1820s, but by the mid-1830s, the newly independent Republic of Mexico was announcing the end of the Franciscan Protectorate, followed by the establishment of a Diocese of the Californias in the early 1840s.

In Florida, Texas, and New Mexico, as well as Alta California, the Franciscans also established mission systems.  The Florida system began to go into decline in the early 1700s due to military attacks by English residents of the Carolinas.  The missions of Texas were established later, in the late 1720s, and continued on into the mid-19th century.  The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico went into revolt against the mission system in the 1680s but later made a guarded peace with the Franciscans.  Arizona was evangelized and developed by Jesuits and like Baja and Alta California turned over to Franciscans following the Suppression of the Society of Jesus in the late 1760s and, finally, from Rome in 1773.  

As far as accomplishments are concerned, Texas, in my opinion, was the most successful of the Franciscan Protectorates in terms of the long-term establishment of a Catholic laity, followed by New Mexico, where a civilian Catholic population likewise came to maturity and semi-independence.  

CWR: Was the French Catholic approach to indigenous peoples in eastern Canada different from that of the Spanish in the West? 

Dr. Starr: Whether the Capuchins of the Atlantic coast and maritime regions or the Jesuits of Huronia and the Mississippi Valley, or the Sulpicians of the Great Lakes region, and the Paris Foreign Missioners of the Illinois country and lower Louisiana, the ability of French missionaries to achieve a creative connection with indigenous peoples was truly impressive.  Admittedly, hostile Iroquois all but destroyed Catholic Huronia in 1649, but to this day many Native American tribes of the St. Lawrence Valley, the Mississippi Valley, the Maritime Provinces, the state of Maine, and northern New York can trace their centuries-old Catholicism to French missionaries of the 17th and early 18th century.  Montreal itself was founded by pious Catholic devots connected to the parish of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and Sulpician priests constituted the seigneurs of Montreal and its hinterlands.

In contrast, it took time for the relationship between New Spain and indigenous peoples to come to any level of rapport.  The initial Spanish occupation of the Caribbean had a devastating, indeed, genocidal, effect on Native Americans forced into hard labor or destroyed by military invasion.  So hostile were relations between Spain and the Native Americans of northern Florida and coastal regions as far north as the Chesapeake, St. Francis Borgia, the third Father General of the Society of Jesus, faced with the continuing massacre of Jesuit missionaries he sent to these regions, withdrew the Jesuits from northern Florida and the Chesapeake for not being worth the cost of lost lives.  Likewise did the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico oppose missionaries in either covert or open revolts until the 18th century.  

And yet, another process was underway in these decades: that of the creation of a mixed-race Catholic laity, thanks to the growing prevalence of Catholic marriages between Spaniard and Native American.  By the late 18th century, a new Catholic people had made its appearance in the Spanish Southwest, comparable to the emergence of French Canadians as a result of the subsidization of immigration to Canada by young French women inaugurated by First Minister Colbert and the Intendant of New France Jean Talon.

CWR: How would you summarize the English, Irish, and German Catholic contribution to the Church’s work in North America in the 1600 and 1700s? 

Dr. Starr: First of all, the establishment of Maryland in 1634 brought Recusant English Catholics to North America.  While they eventually lost even shared control of Maryland, these Recusants solidly established Roman Catholic culture in the Chesapeake region.  The Maryland Mission of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, meanwhile, established a self-supporting ministry that lasted through the Suppression of 1773 and the reestablishment of the Society of Jesus in 1814.  Unfortunately, the support of that system was based in Jesuit-owned plantations worked by enslaved African-Americans.  Indeed, Jesuits remained slaveholders until 1838.  

Nevertheless, the Catholicism of Maryland also attracted to Pennsylvania German Catholics and Irish Catholics.  By the time of the Revolution, in fact, Philadelphia enjoyed a thriving, if small, Irish Catholic population connected to the shipping industry.  At the outbreak of the Revolution, the Catholic population, approximately 22,000, constituted only one percent of the American population.  Yet Roman Catholics played more than their fair share in the Revolution itself either as statesmen (Charles Carroll of Carrollton, for example, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) or military officers and men (Stephen Moylan, John FitzGerald, John Barry).  English, Irish, and German Catholics, in short, played a role in the Revolutionary War and the search for an appropriate form of government that followed victory.

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About Carl E. Olson 1232 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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