The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

The Catholic Church in the United States of America


This chapter explores the early days of the English colonies, when the rights of Catholics were not respected, to the end of the nineteenth century.

people/calvertCecil Calvert
(1606 - 1675)

The English colonies were founded at the same time the Church was persecuted in England. Virginia colonists were members of the English Church; in New England the colonists were Calvinists. Catholics were not permitted in these colonies. Catholics were excluded from the Dutch colony in New York and the Swedish settlement of Delaware also.

In 1683 James II appointed Thomas Dongan governor of New York and religious liberty was granted to all. The Jesuits built a Catholic chapel in New York City, and established a Latin school there in 1685. By 1700, laws against Catholics were again put into place. Catholics of New York had to travel to Philadelphia as late as the Revolutionary War to participate in Mass and receive the sacraments.

2. Was religious freedom permitted in Maryland?

Yes. A Catholic colony was settled in Maryland by Cecil Calvert in 1634. A church and school were built as Catholic settlers arrived, accompanied by Jesuit priests. They permitted religious freedom to others and, as a result, Protestants obtained control of the colony. The English Church was then established and Catholics were denied their right to vote. The religious freedom of Catholics in Maryland was then restricted until after the Revolutionary War.

3. Were Catholics given freedom in Pennsylvania?

Yes. Under William Penn, the Quakers in Pennsylvania permitted Catholics to practice their faith. In 1730 the Church was given greater security when a Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Greaton, settled in Philadelphia and had St. Joseph's Church built. When Catholic emigrants came from Germany, they too built churches. By the end of the French and Indian War there were only 7,000 Catholics in the English colonies. Most of them lived in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

4. Summarize the development of Catholicism in other parts of the New World.

The Capuchins built a chapel in New Orleans in 1721, just three years after the city was founded. They opened a school for boys. The French king gave the Ursuline sisters permission to settle in New Orleans and they opened the first convent in the United States. They built a hospital, an orphanage, and a school for girls.

Fr. Pierre Gibault left the seminary at Quebec, Canada, and came to labor for the Church in Vincennes, Makinac, Detroit, and Peoria. The priest blessed the first church in St. Louis in 1770. He made it possible for George Rogers Clark to gain possession of the great Northwest for the United States, which included what is now Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Attempts to colonize Florida failed at first because of the hostility of the Indians. Early missionaries did not succeed, even though as early as 1528 Fr. Juan Juarez, a Spanish Franciscan, was appointed bishop of Florida. He disappeared mysteriously. In 1549 a group of missionaries landed near Tampa Bay and within a few days all were savagely killed by the Indians.

Philip II in 1565 sent Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a leading naval leader of the Spanish Empire, to establish a colony in Florida. Twelve Franciscans and four Jesuits went with him to convert the Indians. Sailing along the Florida coast on August 28, 1565, Admiral Menendez saw an ideal peninsula and ordered the boats to drop anchor. On September 8 he proclaimed the founding of St. Augustine because the peninsula was found on the saint's feast day. missionaries spread out from St. Augustine to convert the Indians, with many priests losing their lives as the new, advancing civilization was resisted by the Indians.

Missionaries were determined to bring Christianity to Florida and so the priests who lost their lives were always replaced, and gradually St. Augustine developed and the new colony grew. The countryside became peaceful as missions and monasteries were founded throughout Florida and most of the Indians north of the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Mississippi River converted to the Catholic Church.

The French Huguenots then appeared and raided Spanish Catholic Indian settlements. Missionaries and the faithful were put to death with extreme cruelty. The British, who had been colonizing in the north, also began to destroy Spanish gains.

Governor Moore of South Carolina in 1704 directed a raid of the Apalachee Mission, valuable for food supplies. Franciscan missionaries were put to death; 1,400 Indians were taken into slavery by the English governor and 800 Catholic Indians were killed.

Weakened, the Spanish signed the Treaty of Paris with England in 1763m ceding Florida to the British. The Catholic faith in Florida was then even more suppressed. At the end of the American Revolution, however, the United States government returned Florida to Spanish control. In 1821 Florida was purchased as part of the United States.

in 1598 Don Juan de Onate led an expedition to establish a colony in New Mexico. It consisted of 400 soldiers, 10 missionaries, 83 supply wagons and carts, and 7,000 head of stock. Onate went as far as Wichita, Kansas, and California. Onate's expeditions to New Mexico became an economic drain and the victory of New Spain assigned Pedro de Peralta to build a new capital and to colonize. This was done. He named a site, Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis, known today as Sante Fe (Holy Faith). Santa Fe was founded in 1609 and became the headquarters for future missions in New Mexico. By 1625 there were forty-three missions and 34, 000 Christian Indians.

A Jesuit priest, Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino, labored in the Upper Pima country, which is now the Mexican state of Sonora and southern Arizona. Fr. Kino has been called "the most picturesque missionary pioneer of all North America â explorer, astronomer, cartographer, mission builder, ranchman, cattle king, and defender of the frontier." His maps were the most accurate of the time, winning fame in Europe.

Fr. Kino's mission of San Xavier del Bac, not far from what is Tucson, Arizona, is now a national monument, while still the parish church for the Pima Indians. It is the finest example of Spanish Renaissance architecture in the United States.

Fr. Kino traveled thousands of miles on horse, ever anxious to convert souls. Some of this trails became roads, and he kept journals of his extensive travels. His papers were preserved in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. While Fr. Kino won the faith of the Pima Indians for Jesus Christ, he was always sad that he did not succeed in converting the Apache Indians.

Fr. Kino died on March 15, 1711, in poverty, as he had lived. He is venerated as a great American pioneer.

The cause for canonization of Fr. Antonio Margil, who developed missions in Texas, has been introduced. One of the missions he founded near San Antonio (San Antonio de Bexar Mission) is still used as a parish church and has been declared a National Historic Site by both the state and nation. Margil is compared to Kino and Serra as among the greatest of Spanish missionaries.

The Spanish came to Texas first but met competition from the French, who came down the Mississippi River from Canada. La Salle built Fort Prudhomme in Tipton County and Fort St. Louis in Victoria County.

Besides San Antonio, the Spanish built the missions of San Saba, San Luis, and San Francisco de los Tejas (now a lost site). The Spanish built their missions not simply as churches for worshipers but to become self-sufficient communities with farms, cattle and ranches, and homes for Indians who worked at the mission â also homes for teachers, nurses, and guards. They built hospitals, schools, and guard posts as protection from Apache and Comanche Indians.

The Spanish crown withdrew support and in 1793 the mission of San Jos de Aguayo was suppressed by the Mexican government. The Franciscans had to leave when the new Mexican government took over the missions in 1824, and with the passing of years the mission was neglected. San Jos, which had earned the name Queen of the Missions, began to be restored to its former beauty in 1912 when the archdiocese of San Antonio began a restoration program. In 1941 arrangements began whereby it was named a National Historic Site.

Fr. Junipero Serra
(1713 - 1784)

Fr. Junipero Serra, the great missionary of California, has been named to the Statuary Hall of our nation's capitol for the state of California. Fr. Serrra arrived in the harbor of Veracruz, Mexico, on December 6, 1749, with a group of Franciscan missionaries assigned to evangelize the Indians of northern Mexico.

The Franciscans were welcomed in the New World missions. They avoided politicizing. The viceroy of Peru wrote to King Philip II: "They are the ones who preach the doctrine with the greatest care and example, and the least avarice." This was especially true of Fr. Juniper Serra.

Fr. Junipero was known for his great oratory, and his keen philosophical mind gave him a reputation among scholars. Nonetheless, he requested an assignment as a missioner. He said: "I have wanted to carry the Gospel teachings to those who have never heard of God and the kingdom He has prepared for them."

His real missionary work did not begin until he was 56 years old, after he spent nine years among the Toltec Indians in Serra Gord and seven years as an itinerant preacher from San Fernando College in Mexico City.

Learning of California and the needs of its Indians moved him. He then received permission to begin mission work there. His motto was "Always forward, never back."

Fr. Serra walked whenever possible, in spite of poor health. He carried on a most heroic conquest of America for Christ from 1750 until his death in 1784, with no other weapon than a crucifix and the love of God. He converted the solitudes of California into an earthly paradise â where formerly fierce Indian tribes attempted to annihilate each other in cannibalistic battles.

Fr. Serra founded nine important missions in California. His successors founded twelve more. The cities of California grew around these missions. San Diego, Carmel, San Gabriel, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Capistrano, San Francisco â became centers of colonization and development in California.

Fr. Junipero Serra was always on the move, back and forth between his missions, urging all to greater charity and zeal and encouraging new converts. Not satisfied with simple conversion to the Catholic faith, this great Franciscan priest and missionary taught the Indians a better life by teaching them how to sow and harvest. He led in the development of farmlands and wine presses and helped build, with his own hands, forges, mills, and slaughter houses.

Fr. Serra once walked 2,400 miles to Mexico City to get retribution from the viceroy when a commandant of the Spanish military practiced cruelty to the Indians. His death at Carmel Mission, on August 28, 1784, marked the end of Spanish extension in the United States in the pioneer missionary era.

5. Did religion continue strong in the hearts of people after the early pioneer days?

To some extent it did, but once the hardships of the pioneer days were over and the descendants grew wealthy from trade and agriculture, the old religious spirit weakened among Protestants. The spirit of the Enlightenment overtook them and Rationalism dominated in too many cases, as many depended more on themselves than on God.

Thomas Paine, a leader of the revolutionary spirit, resembled in some respects the infidelity of Voltaire. Thoms Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a deist who sympathized with the Freethinkers of France.

Catholics were blessed with heroic and saintly missionaries. Their faith continued to spread. There were three Catholics among those who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation: Thomas Fitzsimmons, Daniel Carroll, and Charles Carroll of Carrolton.

The Carroll family of Maryland played a great role in the foundation of our American nation. One of the great Carroll family became a priest, namely John, who was born in Maryland on January 8, 1735. On July 1, 1784, Fr. John Carroll was appointed superior of the Catholic clergy in America. In 1789 Monsignor Carroll was appointed bishop, and was consecrated bishop of the United States in 1790, with his see at Baltimore.

When Bishop Carroll returned from England (where he was consecrated), he took a survey of his vast church. The first national census showed that in 1790 there were approximately 30,000 Catholics in a population of 3, 200,000. There were fewer than thirty priests for the widely scattered Catholic population. More than half the Catholics, about 16,000, lived in Maryland; 7,000 lived in Pennsylvania; 3,000 around Detroit and Vincennes, and 2,500 in Illinois.

6. How did the first bishop of the United States prosper in ruling the Church?

Bishop John Carroll
(1735 - 1815)

Bishop John Carroll was later named archbishop and he directed the Catholic Church in America for twenty-five years. He called the first Synod of Baltimore, which set up rules and regulations that had governed the Church until the present day. He founded Georgetown University, and when the Jesuit Order was restored in 1801, he asked the Jesuits to take over Georgetown.

Bishop Carroll influenced the Sulpicians to come to Baltimore and open the first seminary in the United States, which was named after the Blessed Virgin Mary. He invited Augustinians, Dominicans, Carmelites, Visitation nuns, and the Sisters of Charity to come to America to work.

Catholics began to emigrate to the United States by 1807. There were 14,000 Catholics in New York, compared with less than 100 seventeen years previously. The French Revolution drove many priests from France and they came to the United States and assisted Bishop Carroll.

In 1808 the Holy See elevated Baltimore to an archdiocese and created four new dioceses: Boston, New York, Bardstown, and Philadelphia.

When Archbishop Carroll died in 1808 at the age of 81, there were 200,000 Catholics in the United States and the Church showed signs of growing stability. Archbishop Carroll is attributed with being the spiritual leader and founder of the Catholic Church in the United States.

7. Did the early Catholics of the United States prove themselves loyal Americans?

Yes. When the Revolutionary war came they rallied to the cause of the patriots. At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics were only about 1 percent of the population of the colonies but they made great contributions.

Some Catholics rose to high positions, such as Commodore John Barry, who became Father of the American Navy. Many Catholics enlisted in the Continental army and the navy and a regiment of Catholic Indians came down from Maine. Catholic generals even came from Europe to help the War for Independence.

General Washington wrote to Monsignor John Carroll that he recognized the important aid given by Catholics and "a nation professing the Roman Catholic Faith" in the establishment of our government.

The loyalty of Catholics to their country, America, has been in evidence from the very early days and during its more than 200 years of history.

8. Did Catholics in the early years of the United States labor to establish schools?

Yes. From the beginning, Bishop Carroll and other bishops of the country labored to provide schools for Catholic children. The bishops met in Baltimore in 1829 and held the First Provincial Council. They declared: "We judge it absolutely necessary that schools should be established in which the young may be taught the principles of faith and morality while being instructed in letters."

Priests who escaped France during its revolution and came to the United States established missions, opening Catholic schools wherever possible.

9. Who was the Apostle of the Alleghenies?

Prince Demetrius Gallitzin was ordained in 1795 by Bishop John Carroll. His father was the Russian ambassador to Holland and he was born in the Hague in 1770. Demetrius had been prepared for a military career by his father, who scoffed at religion as he was an admirer of Voltaire. The elder Gallitzin kept religion from his son and even destroyed his wife's faith. In danger of death, the mother of Demetrius, when he was only 16, repented, called for a priest, and was reconverted. Upon her recovery she prayed to St. Monica, who in her own time had prayed for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine.

Amazed at his mother reconversion, when he had been taught to ridicule religion and revelation, Demetrius told how his curiosity was stimulated: "I soon felt convinced of the necessity of investigating the different religious systems, in order to find the true one...My choice fell upon the Catholic Church, and at the age of seventeen, I became a member of that Church."

After his conversion Demetrius continued his interest in military pursuits. Circumstances led him to come to America to offer his service to the infant army, but instead he became aware of the shortage of priests and offered himself to Bishop John Carroll to study for the priesthood. He entered the seminary at Baltimore.

After his ordination to the priesthood, he traveled westward and settled in the Allegheny Mountains. He labored among the people of western Pennsylvania for forty-one years. He labored for the Church both by the spoken and written word in the cause of truth. He defended the Church by writing, while all the while concealing the fact that he was a Russian prince.

Fr. Gallitzin built a mission center at Loretto, Pennsylvania, which grew to ten churches and three monasteries. His work covered the present dioceses of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Greensburg, and Erie.

10. Relate the founding of seminaries in Kentucky and Missouri.

The first bishop of Bardstown was a Sulpician, Bishop Flaget. In 1811 he and another Sulpician, Fr. John David, founded a seminary in Kentucky which consisted of a couple of log cabins, with the bishop living in one and the seminarians in the other. Later they made bricks and cut wood to build a church and seminary building.

In 1817 the Vincentian fathers started a log-cabin seminary in similar manner west of the Mississippi in Missouri. It became Kenrick Theological Seminary of St. Louis.

11. What were other significant establishments for the early Church in America?

The diocese of Cincinnati originally included Ohio, Michigan, and the Northwest Territory. Its first bishop was Edward Fenwick, a Dominican who was appointed bishop in 1822. He established Athenaeum Seminary, which later became known as Mt. St. Mary's Seminary of the West.

Fr. Sorin and six lay brothers of the Congregation of the Holy Cross came to northern Indiana in 1841. They founded a college which was dedicated to Our Lady, and is still known as Notre Dame du Lac.

In 1792 the Poor Clares came from France to open a monastery at Frederick, Maryland. In 1801 they opened an academy at Georgetown, which later was taken charge of by the Pious Ladies, a religious order founded in the United States in 1799. This society later became part of the Visitation Order.

12. What made the great growth of the Catholic school system in the United States possible?

The self-sacrifice of good Catholic parents and religious brothers and sisters who labored for little, under a vow of poverty, made the Catholic school system possible. The early American Catholics desired to provide education for their children, whether from rich or poor families. Laws were passed by American churchmen commanding parents to send their children to Catholic schools whenever possible, and schools were established in all the states.

Many in the public school system were affected by the false spirit of the Enlightenment in Europe and they did not want the churches to have any influence in the public school system. Catholics came to the support of their bishops and built schools of their own, building one of the greatest Catholic school systems in the entire world. The sacrifice was great because most Catholic parents were poor and they received no help from the state. Instead, they had to help support, through taxes, the public school system.

Young men and women, dedicated to Christ and reared by good Catholic parents, left the world to join religious orders. These people became the backbone for the education of future Catholics in the United States Catholic school system.

The Christian Brothers, the Brothers of Mary, the Marists, the Xaverian Brothers, and the Brothers of the Holy Cross worked for the Catholic education of boys. Communities of nuns multiplied for the education of girls, and in many cases labored for the Catholic education of boys and girls.

Largely, it was a strong Catholic school system which assisted the Catholic Church in the United States to grow strong, with millions of devout Catholics.

13. Was the Catholic press an important organ for spreading the true faith in the early years of our country?

There were some earlier attempts, short-lived and without much success, but the first strictly Catholic newspaper in the United States was founded by Bishop John England of Charleston. In 1823 he founded the United States Catholic Miscellany. Thereafter other papers appeared under Catholic sponsorship. The oldest still-existing Catholic publication in the United States is The Pilot.

In 1833 Fr. John Martin Henni of Cincinnati, who later became the first archbishop of Milwaukee, founded a German weekly. A convert to the Church, Orestes A. Brownson became a great defender of Catholic truth when in 1844 he began publishing Brownson's Review every three months. The Catholic World, a magazine, began publication in 1865 under the Paulist fathers, founded by Fr. Isaac T. Hecker in New York City in 1858. Also in 1865, Fr. Sorin began to publish Ave Maria at Notre Dame. Although not strictly under official Church auspices, Der Wanderer was founded by the German Matt family in 1867 and has continued as an English edition since 1931, The Wanderer.

In more modern times, Monsignor Matthew Smith founded the Denver Catholic Register, later called The Register and currently called The National Catholic Register. The national edition of The Register began in 1924, although this paper had already existed for many years. Under Monsignor Smith it grew to a circulation of about 1 million, with the powerful pen of the monsignor campaigning for fair treatment of migrant workers, battling the bigoted Ku Klux Klan, promoting the rights of Mexican minorities, and promoting the Christian reunion movement. Monsignor Smith defended Catholic truth with his straightforward presentations in Catholic apologetics.

Another crusading Catholic journalist was John F. Noll, born in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in 1875. Ordained June 4, 1898, Fr. Noll from the beginning was interested in helping Protestants to better understand Catholicism. He felt that, if truth was known, bigotry would disappear. He began by publishing the Parish Monthly, which grew into a magazine. The little magazine grew to include neighboring parishes.

When Bishop Noll became aware of new and growing anti-Catholic forces against the Church (from publications such as The Menace, The Peril, and The American Defender) and that socialism, with its materialism, was gaining political strength, he attempted to gain the support of the laboring class, to which Catholics largely belonged. Fr. Noll enlarged his paper and named it Our Sunday Visitor. In less than a year it had a weekly circulation of 200,000 and eventually 1 million.

The Catholic press in the United States, like the Catholic school system, grew to be the best in the world and had great influence on not only the defense but also the growth of authentic Catholicism.

14. Did the Catholic Church in the United States show interest in the Indians and black people?

The abuse of the Indians by the white man mars the pages of American history, as does the abuse of black people as slaves. While the new American civilization was in many ways an enemy to the Indians' nomadic manner of life, the Church befriended the Indian tribes from the very beginning. Many historical accounts could be given of "Blackrobes" helping the Indians, and significant examples are the following.

The Cheyenne were sent to reservations chosen by the white conquerors. Massacres took place. Wherever the Cheyenne went, priests were there to administer to their spiritual needs and seek justice for them. These included the Jesuits, the Edmundites, and the Capuchins.

The Navajos, who roamed the Southwest, were a talented tribe who learned the Spanish language as they were Christianized by the first Spanish missionaries ; Franciscans first preached to them. Fr. Bernard Haile O.F.M. made the first alphabet for the Navajo. His dictionary and anthropological works are still chief sources for knowledge about these people. The government tried unsuccessfully to remove these people to reservations in Oklahoma.

In Indiana, the Potawatomi Indians were under pressure of the government to be removed to Kansas. When Chief Menominee refused, the Indiana governor ordered them removed by force. The attack came on a Sunday morning, while the Indians, converted to Catholicism, were at Mass.

In South and North Dakota the Benedictines have labored long for the Indian people, as have other missionaries . The Benedictines still labor in the Dakotas, from their chief monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, at Marvin, South Dakota.

In 1824 the Jesuits opened a school for Indian boys at Florissant, Missouri, while the Ladies of the Sacred Heart opened a school for Indian girls there. Later the Vincentian fathers took charge of the Indian missions on the Mississippi River. The Jesuits took charge of those on the Missouri. In 1840, Fr. John de Smet established missions among the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1842, in New Orleans, Bishop Blanc founded the Sisters of the Holy Family to take care of black people, especially orphans and the aged.

In 1866 the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore met, with the bishops urging priests "as far as they can to consecrate their thoughts, their time and themselves, wholly and entirely if possible, to the service of the colored people."

A large congregation of Negro Catholics formed St. Francis Xavier's Church in Baltimore, when in 1871 four young priests who had studied for the missions in England were put in charge. This marked the beginning of St. Joseph's Society for Colored Catholics â the Josephite Fathers. As the society grew, missions for black people spread throughout the South.

Mother Catherine Drexel founded a new order of nuns in 1889. They called themselves the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and devoted themselves to spreading the Catholic faith to the blacks and Indians of the United States.

To the present day there are Catholic missions among the colored people and the Indians. The Commission for Catholic Missions reported in the 1970s that missions are located in twenty-five states: 157 in the Southwest, 63 in the Northwest, 60 in the Dakotas, 45 in Alaska, 36 in the Great Lakes area, and 40 in other states.

15. Has the Catholic Church admitted black people to the hierarchy in the United States?

The first black bishop in United States Catholic history was Bishop James A. Healy

Bishop James A. Healy
(1830 - 1900)

. He headed the diocese of Portland, Maine, from 1875 to 1900, and suffered much because of his mixed ancestry. Born in Macon, Georgia, on April 6, 1830, Bishop Healy was the son of an Irish immigrant plantation owner and a mother who was a slave. The bishop's brother was Jesuit Fr. Patrick F. Healy, who became the twenty-ninth president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Another brother was Monsignor Sherood Healy, who became rector of Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral. Two sisters of the Healy family (of ten children) became nuns.

Bishop Healy studied for the priesthood in Sulpician seminaries in Montreal and Paris, and was ordained in Paris in 1854. In his diary for the year 1863, commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the rebel states, Fr. Healy noted "there were going to be terrible problems for all the freedmen to make their way."

In 1977 Pope Paul VI established a new diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi, and named Bishop Joseph L. Howze the first black bishop to head a diocese-appointed in the twentieth century in the United States. Bishop Howze had been auxiliary bishop of Natchez â Jackson in 1972 but in 1977 was named head of the Biloxi diocese, formed from the diocese of Natchez â Jackson which had included all of Mississippi. In 1972 he was only the third black person to become a Catholic bishop in the United States. In 1975 the Holy See named Josephite Fr. Eugene A. Marino, auxiliary bishop of Washington and the fourth black bishop in United States history.

By the 1970s the number of black Catholics was estimated to be more than 900,000, in a total black population estimated to number more than 22 million. There were 666 Catholic parishes that were entirely or predominantly black. These parishes were served by 1,014 pastors or assistant pastors of missions and parishes. Also, the black population in more recent years has moved from the Southern United States, until nearly two out of three Catholic Negroes now live in the largest Eastern, Midwestern, and Western cities.

16. Did Catholics find freedom from bigotry after the Constitution guaranteed religious liberty?

In many cases, no. The idea that one could not be a good American and a good Catholic at the same time was introduced to this country from Europe. Unscrupulous politicians used it to their advantage in appealing to hatred of the Catholic Church.

In 1837 an organization was formed, Native Americans, that apparently forgot that the Indian people are the natives. This organization developed into the Know Nothing Party, and when a papal representative came to the United States in 1853, he was mobbed by its members in Cincinnati.

Persecution of Catholics resulted all over the country, and Catholic churches were destroyed. A Jesuit priest was tarred and feathered in Bangor, Maine. Riots broke out in cities like Louisville and St. Louis, and blood was shed. A movement was on to keep Catholics from holding public office and having the right to vote.

Archbishop John Hughes, who was made bishop of New York in 1842, did everything he could to defend the Church from this bigotry and intolerance. At first he tried to win public support for Catholic schools. Realizing he was defeated and that, unjustly, Catholics had to pay taxes for education from which they did not benefit, he worked hard to build and staff a Catholic school in every parish.

Archbishop Hughes, the first archbishop of New York, continued to fight the Native Americans and the Know Nothing Party, at the same time demonstrating great patriotism for America. He eventually won support from fair-minded Americans who were not Catholic, but bigotry has never entirely disappeared from the American scene.

17. What was the bigotry represented by the Ku Klux Klan?

The Ku Klux Klan was a bigotry movement that was anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-alien. The American Protective Association (APA) first appeared in 1887; it spread throughout the country but its main strength was in the Midwest. It sought to repeal naturalization laws, to forbid teaching of foreign languages in public schools, and to tax Church property. This movement followed in 1915 when thirty-four men, meeting under a blazing cross on a mountaintop near Atlanta, Georgia, pledged loyalty to the "Invisible Empire." This was the origin (in modern days) of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan used murder, beatings, and tar and feathers as they spread hatred and misunderstanding. Membership was placed at 1,200,000 by 1922. In 1925 it claimed 5 million members, living in every state, the Canal Zone, and Alaska. Its symbols became the burning cross and hooded white figures. Burning crosses were sometimes placed in front of Catholic churches. In Pennsylvania, a court trial produced evidence of Klan-inspired riots, floggings, kidnappings, and even murder.

The Klan gained strength in the Democratic Party and is considered to have played a large role in the prejudice that hindered Governor Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic ever nominated, from being elected president of the United States in 1928. His presidential campaign stirred prejudice that brought wild anti-Catholic emotions into the open. Among the extreme methods was circulation of a false oath, purported to be the secret Knights of Columbus oath.

The 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, the first United States president who was Catholic, was an occasion for anti-Catholic prejudice again to surface. While the prejudice was not as severe as in 1928, the bogus Knights of Columbus oath again appeared, sermons were preached against a Catholic president, and false accusations were again circulated.

18. Does anti-Catholic bigotry still continue?

Yes. Protestants and Other Americans Unite (POAU) has spread much anti-Catholic sentiment in recent years.

Evidence that anti-Catholicism is not dead was see in May 1973, when need for a Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was noted. Patterned after the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it seeks to champion the rights of Catholics and the Bill of Rights. It seeks to make public exposure, where necessary, of anti-Catholicism and to negotiate anti-Catholic prejudices with offenders.

19. What canonized saints did the United States produce in its first 200 years of history?

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
(1850 - 1917)

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) was the first American citizen to be canonized (in 1946). Born in Italy, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1877, settled in the United States in 1889, and became an American citizen at Seattle in 1909. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini labored among Italian immigrants.

Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized as the first native-born citizen of the United States in 1976, when America celebrated its 200th birthday as a nation. St. Elizabeth Ann (1774-1821), a convert to the Catholic Church, founded the Sisters of Charity in the United States.1

Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann, who was born in Bohemia in 1811, was ordained a priest in New York in 1836. He became a missionary among Germans near Niagara Falls, then joined the Redemptorist Order. In 1852 he became the bishop of Philadelphia. Canonized in June 1977, John Neumann was the first United States bishop to prescribe Forty Hours devotion to our Lord (in the Blessed Sacrament) for his diocese.2

20. Have Catholics demonstrated their patriotism whenever the United States has been at war?

Yes. During World War I, although Catholics at that time were about 17 percent of the population, it is estimated that between 25 and 35 percent of the army and about 50 percent of the navy were Catholic. This is attributed to the fact that our Catholic schools have always taught patriotism. During this war, Catholic priests became outstanding as chaplains, the best known being Fr. Francis P. Duffy of the famous Fighting Sixty-Ninth.

One of every four members of the armed forces was Catholic in World War II. Again, at least half of the navy was Catholic, as was a high percentage of the Marine Corps. Many Catholics received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for heroic service beyond the call of duty.

In various wars of the United States, the loyalty and contributions of Catholics have been obvious. Catholics again showed their loyalty in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The manner in which the Vietnam War was fought proved very controversial, although its anti-communism aim was worthy.

Patriotism, which is love of one's country, was taught by Christ, who said we should give our country its due. St. Paul wrote that we should be obedient to just authority. Patriotism is related to justice and an ally of charity, which requires us to love our fellow countrymen. The Church, however, does not teach blind patriotism or excessive and inordinate affection for one's country, to the detriment of the rights of other nations. This is nationalism, which is opposed to the unity of the human race. In modern times, nazism, fascism, and communism are disguised and extreme forms of nationalism.

It is true that there have been many cases of great patriotism and heroism among non-Catholic chaplains, but it's a fact that only four chaplains have received the nation's highest decoration, presented in the name of Congress for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the normal call of duty." All four were Catholics.

21. Has the Catholic Church in the United States had a record of befriending the rights of the workingman?

Yes. Catholic immigrants made a large proportion of the working force in the United States and their bishops have long worked for social reform and justice in the conditions of labor. In the development of the labor movement, the Catholic Church has worked to protect the rights of the laboring man while, at the same time, protecting him from capitalistic abuses and exploitation by socialistic and atheistic forces. Communist forces have long sought to gain the favor of the workingman by deceit.

As socialistic groups attempted to take over the labor movement for their own ends, the Church has sometimes found itself in delicate positions, working to defend the social rights of the laboring force while not condemning labor organizations. Attempts were made, however, to make the Catholic Church appear to be a friend of the powerful rich and the enemy of the helpless poor.

Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921) won the support of another champion for the rights of labor â Archbishop John Ireland (1839-1918) of St. Paul and two other bishops. These bishops prepared a special document, examining the Knights of Labor to forestall any misunderstanding that the Church was condemning the right of labor to organize for their rights and against abuses. Cardinal Gibbons took the document to Rome with him in 1887, when he received the "red hat" for his cardinalate.

This effort won an official Church position that saved the workingman for the Catholic Church in the United States, and had great influence on Pope Leo XIII. In 1891 this pope issued his historic encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

22. What did the encyclical "Rerum Novarum" concern and how did the Church follow its teachings?

Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XIII, dealt with the conditions of the working class and laid down the principles of social justice. After this great, progressive encyclical, Catholic social doctrine has steadily presented successive authoritative documents.

An outstanding encyclical after Rerum Novarum is Quadrogesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI, issued in 1931-forty years after the first great social pronouncement of the Church. These were followed by Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress) and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), by Pope John XXIII in 1961 and 1963. In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued Populorum Progressio (Development of Peoples).

In 1965, Vatican Council II issued the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which deals with the dignity of the human person, the problem of atheism, the community of mankind, etc. It also deals with the nobility of marriage and the family, culture and socioeconomic life, the political community, and the fostering of peace.

In America, in particular, the Catholic Church has best identified itself with the welfare of the laboring man, as leaders pioneered paths for social justice. Many Catholic bishops and priests have labored to implement the Church's social doctrines, outlined in official Church documents. Too frequently, however, the social doctrines of the Church have not been properly taught or implemented.

23. How did the bishops of the United States coordinate their efforts in a young and growing country?

The bishops of the expanding dioceses met at Baltimore for seven provincial councils between 1829 and 1849. In 1846 they named the Mother of God, under her title of Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States. This was eight years before the dogma was proclaimed by the universal Church.

The first of three plenary councils of Baltimore was held after the establishment of the archdiocese of Oregon City in 1846 and the elevation to metropolitan status of St. Louis, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and New York.

Archbishop Francis P. Kenrick of Baltimore served as papal legate at the first plenary assembly, which convened May 9, 1852. Regulations were drawn up concerning parish life, liturgical ritual and ceremonies, administration of funds, and the teaching of Christian doctrine.

The second plenary council met from October 7 to 21, 1866, and was presided over by Archbishop Martin J. Spalding. It dealt with current doctrinal errors, norms for the organization of dioceses, the education and conduct of the clergy, the management of church property, parish duties, and general education.

The third plenary council, held from November 19 to December 7, 1884, was called into session by Archbishop James Gibbons (who was later named a cardinal of the Church). It provided for preparation of a line of "Baltimore catechisms" which have served (even to the present) as a basic means of religious education. It called for building Catholic elementary schools in all parishes, establishment of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., (in 1889), and the six Holy Days of Obligation for the United States.

The Holy See established an apostolic delegation at Washington, D.C., on January 24, 1893.

24. What system of coordination have the Catholic bishops of the United States used in modern times?

In 1917, under the title National Catholic War Council, the bishops mobilized the Church's resources. Several years later it changed its name to National Catholic Welfare Conference. Its objectives were to serve as an advisory and coordinating agency of American bishops for advancing the works of the Church in social action, education, communications, immigration, legislation, and youth and lay organizations.

The organization of American bishops was renamed the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) in November 1966, when the hierarchy organized itself as a territorial conference under the title National Conference of Catholic Bishops. USCC carries on the work of the former NCWC.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops elects one of its members as president for a term of three years. In many respects, the president of the NCCB becomes a chief spokesman for the Catholic Church in America, but he must work in harmony with all the American bishops.

25. What have American Catholics done to demonstrate their devotion to the Mother of God as their patroness?

To demonstrate their dedication to the Mother of God, American Catholics in 1914 launched the project for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Washington, D.C., in the nation's capital. The shrine, dedicated November 20, 1959, is the seventh largest religious building in the world, with normal seating capacity for 6,000 persons and up to 8,000 persons in attendance on occasion. Each year, approximately 1 million persons visit the shrine, which is adjacent to the Catholic University of America. The huge undertaking was financed by contributions from Catholics throughout the country.

The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception's many chapels are dedicated to, and depict, God's Mother under her various titles.


This chapter has taken us from the early days of the English colonies, when the rights of Catholics were not respected, to the end of the nineteenth century, when great churchmen fought for the rights of the laboring man, who, with his family, made the Catholic Church grow from 30,000 souls in 1790 to over 50 million by the latter part of the 1970s. The chapter has also introduced us to the present era.

Catholics in the United States have often had to fight against bigotry. Although, in the present day, Catholics are the largest single Christian body, much prejudice against the Catholic faith still remains, though it is not as violent as it was in the first two centuries of our country. The celebration of the country's bicentennial in 1976 found America beginning its third century with much residual, if more sophisticated, bigotry.

Catholics have suffered when their rights have been suppressed. A minority among Protestants, who represented hundreds of differing religious communities in the United States alone, Catholics have not always fought for their rights as well as they could have. At the same time, the struggle of Catholic leaders, among both the clergy and laity (as in the case of labor), has greatly enhanced the human rights of the entire country.

The Catholic Church has made great contributions in the United States in many areas â in its schools, its hospitals, and vast charitable works. Catholics have also made significant contributions to science in the United States. They have been part of the exploration of space, just as they were in exploring the New World after the discovery of America. Catholics have also made significant contributions in the United States in literature, the arts and social justice.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Describe the kinds of restrictions Catholics met in the English colonies.
  2. What happened to the freedom of Catholics in the colony that was founded to give Catholics freedom?
  3. What Catholic family played a great role in the foundation of our country? Which member of this prominent family held an important position in the early Church in the United States?
  4. What did the first bishop of the United States do to help the Church prosper?
  5. What did the early Catholics in the United States do about schools?
  6. Relate the story of the prince who became a priest in the United States.
  7. What made possible the great growth of the Catholic school system in the United States?
  8. Did the Catholic press have any influence on Catholic life during the first 200 years of our nation? Explain.
  9. Has the Catholic Church done anything for the Indians and black people in the United States? Explain.
  10. What did the Know Nothing Party try to do?
  11. Explain the purpose and activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
  12. Has religious bigotry ceased in the United States? Explain.
  13. Who were the first three canonized saints among American citizens>
  14. Has the history of Catholics proved to be one of patriotism toward their country, the United States? Explain with examples.
  15. What has been the relationship of the Catholic Church to the working class in the United States?
  16. What could have been the outcome of the relationship of the laboring people to the Catholic Church in the United States if leaders among our bishops had not developed deep insights to the problems of working people and thus kept the pope correctly informed?
  17. What have Catholics in the United States done in the past century to manifest their love and devotion for the Mother of God?
  18. Why was the Catholic faith so strong and why did its membership grow so rapidly during the first 200 years of our country?

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



Fox, Rev. Robert J. "The Catholic Church in the United States of America." Chapter 16 in A Catechism of Church History: 2,000 Years of Faith and Tradition (Alexandra: Park Press Quality Printing, Jubilee 2000 Edition), 165-182.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher and by the author, Fr. Robert J. Fox.

The Author

Father Robert J.  Fox is the director of the Fatima Family Apostolate and editor of the Immaculate Heart Messenger.  Before founding his own Apostolate and editing his own magazine Father Robert J.  Fox for many years was a columnist with leading Catholic magazines, newspapers, and journals in the United States.  In addition to being pastor of St. Mary of Mercy Church, Alexandria, SD he is also chaplain to Mother of Mercy Carmelite Monastery where reside discalced Carmelite nuns who as contemplatives are enclosed for prayer and sacrifice for the universal Church, priests in particular.  Order A Catechism of Church History: 2,000 Years of Faith and Tradition here

Copyright © 2000 Fatima Family Apostolate

Subscribe to our Weekly Update

* indicates required