Dear Brothers & Sisters,
One of the most interesting classes I had in the seminary was an elective on American Church History. This weekend as we celebrate Independence Day, I would like to point out some facts about the historical origins of the Catholic Church in the US. We will divide this history into three parts, the Spanish Settlements in the South and West, the French territory and the British Colonies.
Moved by the desire to evangelize the native people of the Americas and to treat them humanely, the Spanish Queen Isabela began to send Catholic Missionaries all over the Spanish territories. This is how the first priests, Jesuits, arrived in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Soon after, Franciscans also led the evangelization of the southern states. Inspired by the creation of the Reducciones or Mission settlement in South America, the new missionaries created different missions all over the Southern border. It was not until mid 18th century that California was evangelized by Saint Junipero Serra. Starting in San Diego, he founded many other missions always named after saints, St. Francis (San Francisco), St. Barbara, Saint Claire (Santa Clara).
The first evangelizers arrived in the French Territory in the early 1600’s with the creation of the settlement of Port Royal and Quebec. From there, Jesuit priests began evangelizing the native tribes of the area near Albany first with the Hurons, and then later the Iroquois and Mohawk. Saint Isaac Jogues and John Brebeuf and their companions were the first martyrs giving their life in the service of Christ. One of the many fruits of their work was the conversion of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. As the French expanded their territory to the Great Lakes, the Catholic Church accompanied their expeditions. Eventually, small settlements were founded along the Mississippi River all to way to the States of Louisiana and Alabama.
The First English Catholic Settlers arrived in Southern Maryland in the year of 1634. George Calvert, a close adviser to King James I, converted to Catholicism in 1625, by rejecting the King’s Religion. At that time, there was a large persecution against Catholics. Because of Calvert’s close relationship with the King, he was awarded land in the New Colony, which later became Maryland. Gathering more Catholics and Protestants who wanted to practice their faith in the new colony, there was an expedition that set out accompanied by some Jesuit priests. On March 25, 1634, the first mass was offered on St. Clement’s island in St. Mary’s county. One hundred years later, Baltimore became the first Archdiocese of the English World, led by the first Archbishop, John Carrol. Slowly, amid religious persecution in many other states, the Catholic Population grew, especially with the new wave of Catholic immigrants arriving from England, Germany, France and Ireland arriving in the new World.
Many men and women gave their best to bring love and faith to our great country. Now we are called to continue their work in promoting the Gospel in our daily lives. Inspired by their fearless desire to bring Jesus to others, let’s not be afraid to live out our faith.
Happy Fourth of July!
Father Steven Clemence