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Bill Thayer

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American Catholic History


[image ALT: A small semi-circular alcove inside a building, painted with four vertical rectangular panels each depicting two standing men. All are haloed and six are garbed as Catholic priests. Between each pair of wall paintings, a much smaller vertical rectangular stained glass window; beneath the entire composition, an inscription reading 'TE MARTYRUM CANDIDATUS LAUDAT EXERCITUS'. The alcove is supported by variegated marble paneling, and two wooden prie-dieu are symmetrically positioned in front of it. It is the Chapel of the Jesuit Martyrs in the Church of the Madonna della Strada in Chicago, Illinois.]

The Chapel of the North American Martyrs
in the Church of the Madonna della Strada in Chicago.
L to R: Fathers Chabanel, Lalemant, Daniel, Garnier, Goupil, Brebeuf, Jogues, Lalande.

This section of my site — a specialized aspect of my much wider-ranging American history site — will be exploring the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and the Catholic contribution to our national history. The powerful organizational capabilities of the Catholic Church and their early application to exploring and civilizing the American frontier make it somewhat surprising to find this to be an under-appreciated area of American history, but so it is.

We owe this neglect to two main factors. The simpler one is that the United States was first formed out of English colonies rather than French or Spanish, and only one of them, Maryland, was of Catholic origin. The more fundamental reason though is that the New World was just that, something new, a break with continuity, or at least perceived as such, and therefore Americans like to view our history in terms of innovation: and Protestantism by definition, and subsequently the development of Protestant denominations, is best viewed as constant innovation, a history of successive breaks with continuity — whereas the Catholic Church has always stood for cultural continuity and a deep sense of history. Thus such theories of American history as those of Frederick Jackson Turner and "Manifest Destiny" may be more in tune with American tradition; but, as Catholic contributions to that history show, they're only part of the truth.


[image ALT: An oil painting of a man of about 70, wearing a long robe rather sumtuy embroidered, with a pectoral cross hanging from his neck. He is seen more or less in right profile, seated, somewhat stooped, and looks tired. On a dimly seen table to his left, the biretta of a Roman Catholic cardinal. He is James Cardinal Gibbons: the image serves as an icon for a biography of him on this site.]

The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons (1834‑1921) by the noted church historian John Tracy Ellis is given on this site in its one-volume abridgment by Francis L. Roderick. In addition to telling the story of one of Catholic America's most important churchmen, the book provides a window on Protestant America coming to grips with Catholicism, on ethnic rivalries between recent Irish and German immigrants, on battles over education and religious freedom still being fought today, on the labor struggles of the late nineteenth century, on three of America's wars, and on Vatican politics both internal and on the world stage.

[ 215 pages of print, 1 photograph;
presented in 8 webpages ]


[image ALT: A graphic of a middle-aged man in a heavy coat, holding a sheaf of papers in his hands, against the backdrop of a Gothic-arched niche. He is Charles Nerinckx, a pioneering Catholic priest in early‑19c Kentucky; this is the icon to my transcription of a biography of him by Camillus Maes.]

Bishop Camillus Maes' Life of Father Charles Nerinckx (1761‑1824) was clearly not meant as a work of history, but rather as a hagiography of this Belgian pioneer priest of Kentucky, founder of several churches and of the Order of the Sisters of Loretto. Yet despite its somewhat intrusive devotional style, it pays back the careful reader with a good deal of information on religion in America, of course, but also the history of Kentucky — plus sidelights on early‑19c Missouri and New Mexico, on economic conditions, on travel both over the ocean and within America, and even on the history of the Low Countries.

[ 619 pages of print, 1 engraving;
presented in 36 webpages ]


[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph portrait of a young man in the dress uniform (with hat) of a mid‑20c American army officer. His lapel insignia are a Latin cross. He is Capt. Fr. Emil J. Kapaun; this is the icon to my transcription of a biography of him by Arthur Tonne.]

The Story of Chaplain Kapaun Patriot Priest of the Korean Conflict tells the heroic story of Captain Emil J. Kapaun, U. S. Army, recently awarded a long-overdue Congressional Medal of Honor, for whom the Church has opened a process of beatification: a perfectly ordinary man who came to live an extraordinary life.

[ 255 pages of print, 70 photographs;
presented in 22 webpages ]


[image ALT: A photograph of a small wooden building with a sharply pitched roof, accompanied on the viewer's left by the graphic of a Latin cross. The image is further explained in the text of this webpage and serves as the icon on this site for the book 'Arms and the Monk!'.]

Arms and the Monk! — The Trappist Saga in Mid-America is a solid history of the Cistercian Abbey of New Melleray near Dubuque, Iowa, from its antecedents and its foundation in 1849 thru to the 1952 publication of the book.

[ 233 pages of print,
4 photographs, 3 other illustrations;
presented in 25 webpages ]


[image ALT: An engraving of an eagle in flight, holding a long ribbon-like banner, over a seacoast being approached by many sailing ships. It is a stylized depiction of the city of New Orleans.]

A history of the Catholic Church in Louisiana and more particularly in New Orleans — people and church buildings — is given in Chapter 44 of J. S. Kendall's History of New Orleans, pp698‑708.

[ 11 pages of print, 1 photograph ]


[image ALT: A close-up of a collection of papers spread out on a table. It is the icon used on this site to represent my American History Notes subsite.]

Among the hundred and some journal articles in the American History Notes section of my site, some focus more especially on Catholic history; to make them easy to find on that page, they are identified with a .

[ 5/4/13: 16 articles ]

A blank space

Small miscellaneous items will be gathered here. For now:

Isaac Jogues (the article in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Chapter 3 of Norris's Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story has something to say on the status of Catholics in colonial Maryland.

[ 4/27/13: 2 webpages, 1 photo ]

[decorative delimiter]

The graphic theme of these Catholic pages retains the cadet-grey background of its parent American History site, but for the gold cadet stripes down the left side of the page substitutes a decorative runner and monogram from the Catholic Cadet Chapel at West Point; and the red shield, above, which I use mostly as a delimiter between footnotes, looks pretty generic — the traditional IHS monogram of Jesus in a second form — but is here taken from the (fictitious) shield of the military martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, patron saint of cadets, as depicted in a stained-glass window in the same church.


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Site updated: 25 Dec 13