AMERICAN CATHOLIC HISTORY

In order to get a clear picture of the influences behind current American biblical scholarship, it is important to understand the history of Catholic settlers and the Jesuit missionary priests in the United States from the colonial period.

Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, although having landed in what is now Florida and northern Mexico, extended their missionary activities south and west, through the lower region of what became the United States.

On five different occasions within a half century Spain had tried and failed to conquer and settle Florida, due to the insurmountable opposition of savage natives, and later, the armed hostility of European settlers. Juan de Padilla, O.F.M. was the first martyr of the United States, murdered in 1542 by Plains Indians of the Southwest. In 1571, St. Francis Borgia withdrew the Jesuits from the Florida missions.

Meanwhile, French missionaries focused mainly in what is today Canada, but as time went on their work extended to areas south and west, including Illinois and Louisiana. They took formal possession of the western country in 1671. However, European opinions and actions were often reflected strongly in American colonies. The Jesuits in France, considering themselves bound by their profession to combat vice, made enemies for themselves, and although attaining great strength and influence, also acquired many powerful enemies among members of the Enlightenment and the slackers and mistresses of the nobility. In 1762 there began the systematic suppression of their society, and in the following year the order was supressed in the Illinois country. All their property was sold at auction and the chapels demolished.

The first English colony was actually established by a Catholic convert. His father having died before he could realize his dream, Cecilius Calvert became the Baron of Baltimore. In view of the anti-Catholic laws of the mother country and the overall hostility towards Catholics, the baron encouraged the erection of churches that were to be dedicated according to the ecclesiastical laws of England. He also preserved a religious toleration for all Christians the the minority. For example, in Maryland in 1634 there were little less than 3,000 Catholics out of a population of 34,000. In Pennsylvania in 1757, there was less than 1,400 Catholics out of a population of about 200,000. Even in 1785 when the entire United States contained nearly four million people, there was little more than 25,000 Catholics - and no bishop.

The persecution against Catholics that existed in England and other parts of the world during this time continued in one force or another in this new missionary territory, and included attacks by native Americans as well. These persecutions were so intense that even during the three month journey by ship to the new land, some Catholics were urged to conduct their religious services as quietly as possible, and to be silent on occasions when religion was discussed. Others, mainly from British colonies, were required to take an oath that would have involved the denial of their religious faith. Rumor and suspicion against Catholics was a constant phenomenon.

In 1642 the English civil war began, adding to the hostilities already present in Maryland, although Catholics did hold most of the leading offices and Jesuits freely evangelized the Indians and white settlers of the area.

In that same year, Virginia enacted a law prohibiting Catholic settlers. Five years later, a similar law was made at Massachusetts Bay.

In 1649 the Act of Toleration was passed, where "blasphemy and the calling of opprobrious religious names" became punishable offenses, but it was repealed in 1654 and Catholics were outlawed again in Maryland. Puritans condemned ten Catholics to death, plundered houses and estates of the Jesuits, and forced the priests to flee in disguise into Virginia. By 1692, Maryland had become a royal colony, the Church of England was established by law, and Catholics were compelled to pay taxes for its support. They were cut off from all participation in public life and additional laws were introduced that forbid religious services and Catholic schools. Maryland did eventually pass an act of religious toleration by the end of 1776.

Pennsylvania became a welcome territory to the persecuted Catholics of Maryland. William Penn had been harassed as a Quaker, and enacted a broad grant of freedom of worship and civil rights to all who believed in God, regardless of their particular denomination. The threat of war between England and France brought about renewed suspicions against Catholics. Thankfully, the Quaker officials refused to be coerced into violating their traditional policy of religious freedom.

The other eleven colonies were left uncounted by Jesuit missionaries because their were few if any Catholics living in those areas. The only other colony with any recognizable population of Catholics was New York.

Colonel Thomas Dongan, a Catholic, was appointed governor of New York in 1682 by the Duke of York, a convert to Catholicism. Colonel Dongan immediately sponsored a bill of rights similar to William Penn, which contained a guarantee of religious freedom to all who had a belief in God, regardless of individual creed. This freedom lasted less than five years, when a Calvinist, Jacob Leisler, overthrew the government and initiated a reign of terror against Catholics. Dongan was hunted, the Jesuits were forced to leave, and the Church of England was established by law. Catholics were not entirely freed from all the penal laws against them in New York until 1806, thirty years after the Declaration of Independence.

The general anti-Catholic bias and prejudice especially against bishops made it impossible for one to be appointed for the colonies by the Holy See. It wasn't until 1790 that the first bishop was appointed for American Catholics. This 156 years between the arrival of the first missionaries to Maryland and the appointment of a bishop left a century and a half where people were deprived of the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders, and left with little or no regulated Catholic education. Although suffering from similar problems during the advent of the Protestant Reformation, England had enjoyed a strong Catholic presence for approximately one thousand years, a luxury the Americas had not enjoyed. Americans also couldn't sneak to and from the safety of France as they could in England, and the per-capita population ratio was dramatically less in the United States.

Finally, by the late 1700's, the establishment of Catholic schools, such as the Georgetown Academy in 1791 began. However, the school was open to every religious profession, and students were given liberty to attend the church of their parents choosing. In 1809, St. Elizabeth Seton founded the first school for girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Catholic parochial schools numbered about 200 by 1840. Catholic charitable associations also helped alleviate some of the educational pressure. The Sisters of Charity for example, opened their first St. Joseph's Orphanage in 1814. All of the various charitable groups were extremely beneficial in putting Catholics in a better light, because their charity was not confined solely to Catholics, but to all who were in need. Unfortunately, they could not entirely erase the prejudice that still existed.

Another charitable effort among Catholics was the attempt to educate the newly emancipated slaves. The Second Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1866, headed by 45 bishops, decreed that religious instruction be pursued for all, black and white equally. Unfortunately, the southern Protestant attitude against educating the slaves was so intense that many religious orders shied away from the task for fear of alienating white patronage. Feuds between religious orders and non-Catholics often forced black Americans out of the schools. Southern bishops tried again and again to acquire workers and funds to render the apostolate effective, but their extreme poverty crippled most of the efforts they made. A few religious communities were successful, such as the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in 1829, and the Mill Hill Fathers of Baltimore in 1871. Bl. Katharine Drexel was also successful in establishing a network of schools which served upwards of 25,000 black and Indian children and founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first predominantly black Catholic university in the Western Hemisphere. But, by the end of 1955, their were only 483,671 black Catholics in the United States out of a population of approximately 16,000,000.

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