Guest ColumnistThe deep, winding roots of American Catholicism now on display at Knights of Columbus museum

Old World Map Americas Rosario Fiore via Flickr Jodocus Hondius' Map of Americas circa 1619. Rosario Fiore via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0) Filter added, image cropped.

Sébastien Racle, Sebastian Rale in America, a Jesuit missionary priest from the French-Swiss border, brought into the field with him as indispensable reference book for resolving questions of conscience an edition of Busenbaum's Medulla Theologiae Moralis (1645) when he came to New France in 1689. That now weathered volume, lent by the Maine Historical Society, is currently on view at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut in "Mission of Faith: The Coming of the Gospel to America," through September 18.

Father Rale had volunteered to work in New France among the native Abenaki, in what is now eastern Quebec and Maine. As partisan of the Abenaki, whose language he learned well enough to compile a dictionary, and of French Catholic colonial claims, he was caught up in the fighting between French and British settlers in Maine and was killed aged 67 in 1724 in what became known as "Father Rale's War." To the French he was a martyr; to the British authorities who received his scalp in Boston he was one less danger to the security of settlers in Maine. So does the Museum's show remind us of the complex interactions, from earliest times, between faith, inculturation, native rights, mission, colonialism, and the Catholicism of manuals of casuistry.

With pins on a vast map and a series of representative brief biographies, "Mission of Faith" presents priests of New Spain, 1535-1821: Spanish Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits, whose diverse missionary activity stretched from Santo Domingo to San Francisco. Objects from mission excavations in Florida are lent by its Division of Historical Resources: sherds of indigenous Altamaha/San Marcos pottery characteristic of the contact period, beads, a Spanish chisel, candlestick, locks and bolts, fragments of a bell.

We also see French missionaries of New France, 1534-1763, following the river routes of North America from Nova Scotia to the upper peninsula of Michigan and to Louisiana: Ursulines, Capuchins, Recollects, Sulpicians, and Hospital Sisters.

Speakers in a lecture series associated with the show have themselves embodied the encounter of native American culture and Catholic faith. Rev. Maurice Henry Sands will speak on August 20 about ongoing Christian witness and service among indigenous populations. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Executive Director for the Black and Indian Mission Office of the USCCB, and a full-blooded native American, member of the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes.

Dr. Mary Soha spoke in June, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist from Jacksonville, Florida. Herself of native American ancestry, she has been serving the canonization causes of native Americans, first as medical consultant for the commission for Mohawk Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), canonized in 2012, and now as a vice postulator for the cause of the martyrs of La Florida, which opened last October in the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Those martyrs are a diverse group of some 92 from the world of the Spanish missions in northern Florida, Dominican, Jesuit, Franciscan missionaries, and native laypersons, killed between 1549 and 1706, both by natives and by British colonists, many in the Apalachee massacre of 1704, conducted by British settlers of the Carolinas. They include Agustín Ponce De León, a native Floridian Franciscan priest, who would be the first native American priest-martyr, killed in British raids in 1705.

If seventeenth century British settlers felt it necessary to massacre French and Spanish Catholic populations at the margins of their own, Dominican Father John Vidmar, professor at Providence College, spoke in May on the establishment in 1805 of the first American Dominican province from the English, not Irish, province. This was particularly the work of Dominican Edward Fenwick (1768-1832), who recognized opportunity in the new United States for the order, depopulated in England, France, and much of Europe. A Maryland native who had studied in Belgium, he obediently went west at the indication of Bishop John Carroll, made foundations in Kentucky and Ohio, and ended as the first bishop of Cincinnati.

That Dominicans would found their own organized province and no longer work independently is indicative of the new circumstances in America. If one in four US Americans is now Catholic, the show suggests that this is an eventual heritage of the earliest colonial missionaries, together with so many Catholic institutions of health care and education. The claim underestimates the realities of nineteenth century immigration on that number, but the show ends with reference to the new kinds of missionary work necessary to staff parishes of immigrants in an American church reaching full institutional development in a modern democratic republic.

The show presents Martin Spalding (1810-1872), bishop of Louisville and later Baltimore, who led the effort to found the American College in 1857 at Louvain, Belgium, so Europeans might train for the American missions and American seminarians might study in Europe.

Exhibited by loan from the archives of Catholic University of America are liturgical objects associated with Eli W. J. Lindesmith (1827-1922), a diocesan priest of Ohio who spent 1880-91 as a military chaplain and missionary in Montana to the Crow, Sioux, and Cheyenne. These include the browned, faded altar cards he used at seminary and then for most of his life and a broken altar stone, "carried over many thousands of miles among whites, indians, soldiers, trappers, miners, explorers, and frontiersmen of every kind, on cars, boats, stages, and even muleback, and often afoot through almost impenetrable mountains, bluffs, coulees, rooks, canyons, forests, badlands, prairie and over rivers without bridge."

With Father Rale's demise in mind, it is disconcerting to catch sight in the exhibition of a hairy piece of bear skin, but it is a relic of Charles John Seghers (1839-1886), together with his last diary notebook. Seghers was Belgian, studied for the American missions at the American College at Louvain, and became bishop of Vancouver Island and Oregon City and missionary to Juneau and Sitka, Alaska. There he was shot to death by a disturbed lay missionary companion, a story too confusing to be adverted to in the show's labels. In God's providence, one can lay down one's life as a missionary in a complicated variety of ways.

Joseph J. Williams (1875-1940), a Jesuit missionary priest and ethnographer, not unlike Father Rale, but with the benefit of developed academic and historical standards, worked in Jamaica and as anthropologist made an extensive ethnographic collection and studied Jamaican and African culture and religious roots. A manuscript leaf from his papers held by College of the Holy Cross is on view: "Lord's prayer in the Indian tongue viz the Indians of Nawigawok and Penobscut in New England and Nova Scotia as it was framed and translated for their use by a French Jesuit and assented to by four of the Indian hostages in the presence of an interpreter at Boston 22d January 1720." It reads: "Father ours, heaven sitting…" "Memmelunx'innaw spumkeeg abean…" We feel far from Jesus' original Aramaic, or from Pater noster, in the language of Jesus' imperial master, but "Mission of Faith" has brought us nearer to Jesus' command that all human cultures, however unfamiliar, be evangelized.

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