Giovanni Caboto, the Anglicized sea captain and geographer, John
Cabot, explored our coast from its northern boundaries to the
Carolinas. In 1497 he established England's claim to "this New
But the first
attempts at colonization began with Juan Ponce de Leon, who
discovered the "island of La Florida" during the first week of
April, 1513. No priests accompanied this voyage, but as a Catholic
layman, Ponce himself dedicated this land to God.
In September of 1513,
Vasco Nunez de Balboa braved the hostilities of natives, swamps,
jungle creatures, and polluted water to struggle from Panama to
the Pacific Ocean. Only about half of the two hundred or so in his
authenticated visit of priests to our shores occurred in 1521 when
Ponce de Leon finally carried out a commission given him seven
years earlier by King Ferdinand V. He was to secure possession of
this new land and to bring priests to convert the Indians, who
were to be treated well. Ships burdened with livestock,
agricultural tools, and weapons sailed from Puerto Rico to the
Gulf Coast. The passengers had barely disembarked when they were
besieged by Indians. Narrowly escaping death, they set sail for
Cuba, their mission aborted.
Just two years later,
an Italian, Giovanni Verrazano, made France's first New World
discoveries, exploring most of our eastern coast and becoming the
first white man to enter what is now New York Harbor. His next
trip to these strange lands proved fatal. Carib Indians in Brazil
colonization attempts were short-lived. Those not shipwrecked or
felled by disease on the long ocean voyage found unendurable
hardships where they hoped to find gold and silver. Illness,
exposure, starvation, hostile savages, took their toll. The
biographies of these amazing Christians religious and lay men
relate stories of almost incomprehensible horrors.
One such ill-fated
expedition came to a satisfactory conclusion in 1534, when the
four remaining men of a party originally numbering four hundred
plus eighty horses and four fully equipped ships, were sheltered
by a friendly Indian tribe. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions,
among them El Negro Esteban, an African Moor, the first Negro of
record in our country, had wandered through the wilderness for six
years, leaving behind the bodies of their fellow pioneers, scenes
of bloody massacres, and the bones of horses they had eaten to
forestall starvation. Where they encountered natives who
befriended or enslaved them and were able to learn their dialects
or to communicate through signs, Cabeza de Vaca would preach to
them, pray over and aid their sick, even perform baptisms.
And so it seems
likely that the first person to preach our faith in this country
was a layman.
The travels of Don
Hernando de Soto during the 1540's left bodies of hundreds of the
martyred faithful along river banks and wooded trails, but no
recognized martyr was a saintly Franciscan. Father Juan de
Padilla, who had suffered with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado the
miseries and disappointment of fortune hunting journeys over our
western states, stayed behind to do mission work among the Kansas
redmen. He had great success in converting the Quivira Indians,
but was unaware that when he moved on to Christianize others they
would consider his association with their enemies as traitorous.
In 1542,. he was ambushed and murdered, the arrows of martyrdom
repeatedly piercing his body as he knelt on the Kansas prairie,
facing his assassins.
In 1549, Father Luis
Cancer de Barbastro, convinced his missionary endeavors would
prove fruitful if he could reach Indians not previously assailed
by Spanish weapons, set out, accompanied by three other
Dominicans, on an unarmed voyage from Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Unfortunately, the ship's captain had paid little heed to his
landing orders and brought the missionaries to the borders of a
Floridian Indian village where hatred for the white man had
seethed since former encounters with armed Spanish soldiers of
fortune. A treacherous plot in which the natives feigned
friendship led to the cruel deaths of Father Cancer and two of his
priestly friends-another typical chapter in the story of the
It was the
multiplicity of these devastating events that caused King Philip
11, in 1561, to cease operations in exploring this part of the New
World-a decision not easily made.
Christianizing The Indians
King Philip was
forced to recant his decision when French forces threatened
Spanish treasure fleets. In March of 1565 he commissioned Pedro
Menendez de Aviles, Captain General of the Indies Fleet, to
establish a Floridian fort incorporating a religious mission.
When Menendez finally
located the French base in September and then established his own,
he named the harbor "St. Augustine." The first pastor of the
future United States, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales,
offered there a Solemn Mass in honor of the Nativity of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, on this feast day, September 8th, bringing
together Spaniards and Indians in the first communal Thanksgiving
of our country's first permanent settlement. It also marked the
inception of the Parish of St. Augustine.
Menendez, while awaiting
additional Spanish Jesuits, traveled the Florida coasts erecting
crosses and leaving behind lay instructors at many points,
particularly those where military outposts were established.
When more Spanish Jesuits
came to the New World, some attempted to establish Catholicism in
the Chesapeake Bay area while traversing this region in 1570-72.
The early Spanish explorers called the Chesapeake Bay La Bahia de
la Madre de Dios, the Bay of the Mother of God. A number of them
were murdered by supposedly friendly Indians; the rest were
It required two decades from
the time of their initial arrival at Santa Elena, Florida, in
1577, before the Franciscan Fathers could mobilize a full-scale
missionary effort. Often, the Governor would escort them to an
Indian village and, in full view of the assemblage, kneel down to
kiss the hands of the missionaries as a sign of sacred authority
invested in these men of God.
An Indian uprising decimated
Georgian Franciscans in 1597, but within the century the Friars
Minor organized at least thirty thriving missions at which 26,000
Indians were instructed in European arts and crafts as well as
Our nation's second church
was erected in 1598-in San Juan, later Saint Gabriel, New Mexico.
In that same year, "Nuestra Senora de la Soledad" (Our Lady of
Solitude), the first hospital, was built in Florida. It was
followed within a decade by our country's first school building,
situated in St. Augustine.
Many of the Indians,
meanwhile, became loyal friends and devout converts. They
displayed to delighted teachers their intelligence by learning to
read, often in less than two months, the dictionaries and
devotional books prepared in their own language by Father
Francisco de Pareja, a missionary who was constantly impressed by
their eager acceptance of the faith of Christ.
Unlike the Spanish-who often
in their search for gold and silver enslaved Indians as manual
laborers-the French in their missions of the Great Lakes area were
fur-trappers and found it expedient to befriend the natives who
served as guides and traders. Many Indian souls were won by the
dedicated labors of pioneer missionaries in this region, despite
the treacheries of the warlike Iroquois tribes. Of these, the
Mohawks were the most bloodthirsty.
St. Isaac Jogues, who is a
saint of the United States, survived incredible tortures at the
hands of the Mohawks after refusing to leave behind some captive
Huron Indian converts. His companion, Rene Goupil, was tortured
and murdered. Father Jogues served the village as a slave to
allincluding the children-for almost a year before his escape. He
returned to France with great honor, publicly revered by the Queen
Mother and praised by Pope Urban VIII.
But Father Jogues went back
to his mission field. He knew the language and the customs of the
Mohawks and felt called to bring Christianity to them. In 1646, he
returned to Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New York), the village
where he had been held captive, and was fatally attacked by a
Contemporary Jesuit diaries
describe in horrible detail the inhuman atrocities suffered by
their brother priests on both sides of the Canadian border. But
sometimes Indians unresponsive to the friendly overtures of
missionaries were converted by the saintly examples of their
Near the spot where others
were martyred including St. Isaac Jogues-two Mohawk women were
sentenced to death because they refused to denounce Christianity.
One of them, her body brutally tortured before being consumed by
flames, was the daughter of an Iroquois chief. Another chief's
daughter, Kateri Tekakwitha dedicated herself to Christ throughout
the illnesses and hardships she suffered. She died at the age of
Another French Jesuit
missionary to the Indians was Father Jacques Marquette, who
ministered to many Algonquin tribes and established a number of
Indian missions before joining Louis Jolliet to explore the
Mississippi River region. One of Father Marquette's last
accomplishments for the Illinois Indians was the founding of the
Mission of the Immaculate Conception, where he celebrated Mass on
Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, 1675. Soon after this, only a
month before his thirtyeighth birthday, Father Marquette died, a
priestly servant who had truly given his all.
The Spanish Southeast
discovered that civilizing the natives still did not provide the
peace and safety they cherished. Spanish and Catholic Indian
settlements in Georgia and Florida suffered from fierce raids by
the bitterly anti-Catholic French Huguenots. Their hatred was
fanned by memories of their persecution in Europe and their
barbarities outdid even those of the Mohawks.
Later, it was the English
who came down from Carolina to do battle, killing many and taking
hundreds of Indians as captive slaves.
Black slaves were already
laboring on Virginia farms, the Pilgrims had colonized the coast
of Massachusetts and were moving into Connecticut, New Amsterdam
was the name chosen for Peter Minuit's incredible real estate
purchase, when Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore,
established a Catholic-ruled colony in Maryland.
In the Spring of 1634,
The Ark and The Dove brought these pioneers to their new home,
St. Mary's, between the peaceful waters of the Potomac River and
the Chesapeake Bay. A church building was erected almost
immediately-this was the first religious toleration in the
States-and within five years, at least four other parish centers
were established, all spiritually cared for by Jesuits and some
lay brothers. Many Indians-Patuxents and Piscataways were
converted and some gave large land-grants to the Jesuits.
Father Andrew White, "The
Apostle to Maryland," had been a victim of religious persecution
in his native England, where his proscribed spiritual
ministrations had been discovered and led to his banishment. He
helped Lord Baltimore in his efforts to colonize Maryland, where
he was pastor of St. Mary's Parish until 1638. Cecilius Calvert
insisted on religious tolerance and accepted all, including people
of the Hebrew religion, into his Christian community. Protestants,
who were in the majority, held their own services. No "state
religion" was imposed on anyone.
St. Mary's was but ten years
old when Richard Ingle, "Champion of the Protestant Cause,"
invaded the colony, seized Father White and the other Jesuits and
deported them to England in chains for trial as criminals.
Leonard Calvert recaptured
the settlement, but upon his death in 1648, a Protestant, William
Stone, became Governor. Maryland's Toleration Act was signed in
1649. Designed to protect Catholics and others from rising Puritan
hostilities, it was actually less comprehensive than the unwritten
religious policy enjoyed under Lord Baltimore.
Then, a few years later, the
Puritans captured Governor Stone, outlawed Roman Catholicism,
plundered Jesuit estates, forced all priests into exile, and
executed several Catholics. Not until the re-establishment of
Calvert rule in 1657 did normalcy return. Tobacco-growing and
other farming, as well as some iron furnaces, then brought a
certain level of prosperity.
The year 1674 saw the first
documented ordination in this country. On a visit to St.
Augustine, Bishop Gabriel Diaz Vara Calderon of Santiago, Cuba
ordained seven young priests.
The English now controlled
New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York. For years, religious
and political turmoil was rampant both here and in the mother
country. The once-popular Catholic Governor of New York, Thomas
Dongan, and three Jesuit priests he had brought there, had to flee
for their lives. The English colonies, including the once
repression-free Maryland, were now to recognize none but the
From the turn of the century
until the Revolution , the Catholic Church was forced underground.
A proliferation of abusive laws were effected in Maryland. In 1715
and in 1729, laws were enacted that allowed the government to
seize an orphaned child (even if one parent was still living) and
have him raised a Protestant. A 1718 law not only forbade
Catholics to hold public office, but also completely disfranchised
them. A 1756 law proclaimed that all priests' properties no longer
belonged to them and that all Catholics were to be doublytaxed.
But the priestly servants of
Mother Church would not forsake their beloved Mass. In Maryland,
for instance, a "Mister" Thomas Mansell, whose true
identity-Father Mansell of the Society of Jesus was known only to
the faithful, began buying up land for a soon thriving plantation.
Negro slaves labored on its farmlands. Tenant farmers paid rent to
Mr. Mansell. Small shops and mills produced wares that were
shipped from its river wharf.
Some noticeable differences
in this plantation, however, began to arouse neighbors'suspicions.
The proprietor was a bachelor and seemed to do a great deal of
traveling. Other men lived there at times and they, too, came and
went frequently. There was even a chapel in the house.
This establishment, which
was named "St. Xavier," came to be known simply as "Bohemia"
because of its location at the head of the Little Bohemia River.
The academy organized there, under a cloak of secrecy, was a great
bulwark of Catholic education, serving far more than the three
states that met near its borders.
"Old Bohemia," the mother
church of what is now the Diocese of Wilmington, is presently
being restored as an historical site by a nondenominational
organization, The Old Bohemia Historical Society.
Another illustrious priest
who had to be secretive in his missionary wanderings was Father
Ferdinand "Farmer" (an alias for his real name of Steinmeyer), a
man who had given up the study of medicine in his native Germany
to enter the Society of Jesus in 1743. Ordained in 1750 and
originally assigned to the mission field of China, he was sent to
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1752. Traveling constantly, he formed
new congregations and ministered to existing ones.
In 1758, Father Farmer's
permanent headquarters became old St. Joseph's Church in
Philadelphia from which he continued his surreptitious visits to
places as far afield as Delaware, New Jersev. and New York City.
Several times he celebrated Mass in the home of a devout Catholic
who lived on Wall Street, and after the Revolution this New York
City congregation became an important nucleus for Catholic
immigrants flocking to the city.
His priestly concern
extended to enemies as well. During the Revolution, he ministered
to Hessians occupying Philadelphia. He gained such popularity
among these men of his native tongue that he was offered a
chaplaincy by the British forces. His belief in the American cause
dictated his refusal.
The brave Father Farmer, who
at times actually risked death to serve his people, has been
termed "the Father of the Church in New York and New Jersey."
On March 3, 1699, the
exploratory party of Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville, commissioned by
King Louis XIV to found a colony in Louisiana, erected a cross at
a site later to be named New Orleans.
The French were anxious to
colonize their new possessions. When Antoine Crozat failed in New
Orleans, a real "pro" stepped in. The charter granted to John Law
and his Company of the Indies included these provisions:
As in the settlement of the countries granted to the said
Company by these Presents, we regard especially the glory of God
by procuring the salvation of the inhabitants, Indians, savages,
and Negroes, whom we desire to be instructed in the true
religion, the said Company shall be obliged to build at its
expense churches at the places where it forms settlements; as
also to maintain there the necessary number of approved
ecclesiastics; either with the rank of parish priests or such
others as shall be suitable in order to preach the Holy Gospel
there, perform divine service and administer the Sacraments; all
under the authority of the Bishop of Quebec, the said colony
remaining in his diocese, as heretofore, and the parish priests
and other ecclesiastics which the said Company shall maintain
there, shall be at its nomination and patronage.
John Law began his promotion
in 1718-the year of New Orleans' official founding. He had
promised to populate the new colony with six thousand settlers and
three thousand Negro slaves. To the German farmers he was
proselytizing he promised free land, fertile soil for four crops a
year, fish and game of all kinds, mines of gold, silver, copper,
and lead even "friendly" savages.
When Bishop Maurice
Schexnayder of Lafayette spoke at the 250th anniversary
celebration of the Parish of St. Charles Borromeo, Destrehan,
Louisiana, on June 3, 1973, he told of the tribulations that
plagued the emigrants:
Only a few of ten thousand Germans reached the shores of
Louisiana. Miserable fare and lack of drinking water on the
ships took a heavy toll. It is said that only forty of two
hundred Germans in one ship landed in Louisiana and two hundred
out of twelve hundred. At the time of the seftling of the German
pioneers in 1721, there were no levees and only too often when
the spring floods came, caused by the simultaneous melting of
the snow in the vast region of the upper course of the
Mississippi, not unknown even in our day, floods added to the
already existing hardships. Besides, the whole country was a
howling wilderness. Then came the great hurricane of September,
1721, plus the trouble with the Indians. The Germans needed
assistance until they could help themselves, but Law had become
bankrupt and a fugitive.
Incidentally, John Law became a Catholic before he died.
No one can describe or imagine the hardships the German pioneers
in Louisiana suffered, even after they had survived the perils
of the sea, the epidemics, and starvation.
Unlike many other individual
immigrants who planned to make their fortunes and go back "home,"
the Germans did come in family units. Most were Catholics from
eastern and southern Germany.
In 1722-23, a crude log
chapel was erected by the first German Catholic settlers on the
west river bank of the Mississippi, just thirty-eight miles above
New Orleans. They called it "St. Jean des Allemands" (St. John of
the Germans), here in this French colony where phonetic spelling
of names by persons of differing languages would eventually
obscure their origins. French Capuchin missionary priests cared
for the tiny flock of faithful until a resident priest, Father
Philippe de Luxembourg, arrived in 1728.
It was in 1727, when some
Ursuline nuns came from Rouen, France, to begin their work in New
Orleans, that our country's first convent, school, and later a
hospital, were established. Thereafter, many religious orders of
women would distinguish themselves in saintly service to the
people and the Church of God.