Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, painted by Claude Chauchetiere c.1696. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Catholics in America


Ed, Brian and Nathan mark the beginning of Lent with an exploration of American Catholicism—recounting the struggles, triumphs, and unique impact of Catholics on the history of the United States. From Spanish missionaries on the California coast and early converts among the Mohawk, to JFK and modern nuns living in the Blue Ridge Mountains – BackStory considers how what it means to be Catholic in America has changed over time.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

For months, the mood around a certain pontiff’s trip to the US this year has been ecstatic.

MALE SPEAKER: And a countdown to Pope Francis’s first visit to the United States is on. We’re going to tell you how–

PETER: But 100 years ago, America’s relationship with Pope Leo XIII was a bit frostier. He chastised Catholics in the US for being too American.

MAURA FARRELLY: So, then, that presents a particular challenge for people who want to be both good Catholics and good Americans.

PETER: Today on BackStory, Catholics in America, from the complex legacy of a Native American saint to a time when being Catholic could get you run out of town.

NANCY SCHULTZ: They broke down the door of the convent. They took torches to the curtains. And they set the place on fire.

PETER: Coming up on BackStory, Catholics in America. Don’t go away.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Over the past few weeks, you may have heard news stories like this one.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Pope Francis is hugely popular among Catholics in the US. Still, his visit this month will not be without controversy. That’s because the pope plans to make the priest Junipero Serra a saint.

PETER: That’s a report from NPR, noting that Pope Francis’s decision to canonize Junipero Serra in Washington, DC, is raising a few eyebrows. Serra biographer Steven Hackel says the Spanish missionary isn’t an obvious choice for a saint. He’s a polarizing figure, even among Catholics.

STEPHEN HACKEL: Many people see him as an exemplar of a life of Catholic devotion. Others see him as California’s Columbus, as the person who’s responsible for all the ills and tragedies of the period of European conquest and afterwards.

PETER: Junipero Serra first arrived in California in 1769, after spending two decades as a missionary in Spanish Mexico.

STEPHEN HACKEL: Spain was interested in colonizing upper California, the region north of Baja California, on the Pacific coast. And Serra is an extraordinarily ambitious missionary. He’s very experienced. And he spearheads Spain’s movement into what is now the state of California.

PETER: Hackel says Serra’s northward journey also included what he saw as a spiritual goal.

STEPHEN HACKEL: He wants to work with Indians who have never been baptized, who have never spoken Spanish, who he thinks are like children in the Garden of Eden. And it isn’t until 1769 that he actually meets Indians who he believes fit that description. And he is so overcome, he essentially kisses the ground. And he says they’re just like Adam before the fall.

PETER: Serra went on to build nine Catholic missions across California, believing that the natives could only become proper Catholics if they worked and lived in his missions. The converted Indians attended mass and catechism under the watchful eye of mission priests, and were forced to adopt European style farming. And within this system, Hackel says, Serra was a tough administrator.

STEPHEN HACKEL: Serra was not a warm and fuzzy guy. He was a very, very, very hard-headed, aggressive, imperial priest.

PETER: The Indians in the missions were expected, above all, to obey. They had to ask the friars’ permission just to leave the premises.

STEPHEN HACKEL: If Indians strayed, if they left the mission to visit relatives who hadn’t been baptized, they could be punished with a flogging, with blows. And this was upsetting, distressing, painful, offensive, and unacceptable. But Serra believes that this is absolutely necessary for their development as civilized Catholic individuals.

PETER: Serra died in 1784. But the mission system he pioneered grew for decades, with horrendous effects on Native populations. Missionaries forced Indians to abandon many of their cultural traditions, while European diseases devastated local tribes. It’s no surprise, then, that Native Americans have been protesting Serra’s sainthood. Here’s Chumash Indian Georgianna Sanchez on Al-Jazeera a few weeks ago.

GEORGIANNA SANCHEZ: You could be flogged 10 times for a bad attitude. A lot of people died. What kind of saint would allow that?

STEPHEN HACKEL: It has been a shock to many of us that this pope, who seems to be very enlightened and very open to people suffering, would want to canonize him.

PETER: Hackel says the big question isn’t whether Serra is a sinner or a saint. He thinks the more interesting question is why Pope Francis and Vatican officials would want to canonize such a controversial figure. The answer, Hackel suspects, is about messaging.

STEPHEN HACKEL: They believe that there is a very pernicious wave of anti-immigration in North America. And I think Donald Trump couldn’t have come at a better time for this, because he speaks to all of the negative stereotypes that people hold to immigrants in California and elsewhere.

PETER: Hackel thinks Serra gives the church an opportunity to teach Americans a history lesson– one that focuses on Catholics.

STEPHEN HACKEL: Because I think that our national history, our early American history, is really a story of 13 English colonies that struck as one, led by Protestants who created a nation state. And it’s a very east-coast-centered nation state story. And there’s very little room in that story for people who are Latino, Hispanic, and, of course, Catholic.

The idea is that long before there were Anglo-Americans, there were Catholics, Hispanic missionaries. I think what they want to do is help us move towards a more diversified understanding of our early American history.

ED: That diverse, complex understanding of Catholics in American history is what we’ll be exploring on the show today. We’ll hear how fake exposes of convent life riled up 19th-century New England. We’ll also explore what has made the American Catholic experience distinct from its Roman Catholic roots. And we’ll chat with Catholic sisters living a life of prayer in an American monastery.

But first, Spanish Franciscans weren’t the only Catholics to colonise parts of North America. In the 1600s, French Jesuits set up missions across what is today the Northeast US and parts of Canada. Like Junipero Serra’s legacy in California, the Catholic Church’s relationship with indigenous tribes there remains complex.

But that complexity isn’t just embodied in colonizers like Serra. It’s on display in the story of Kateri Tekakwitha who was born in 1656 near the present-day village of Fonda, New York. Producer Bruce Wallace went there to trace her story.

MARK STEED: The Lord be with you.

CONGREGATION: And with your spirit.

MARK STEED: A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew.

CONGREGATION: Glory to you, Lord Christ.

BRUCE WALLACE: In many ways, the mass at St. Peter’s Chapel is pretty typical. 15 congregants take in a gospel reading, file to the front to receive communion, and join in prayer and a hymn.


But the chapel’s visual cues hint at a less typical Catholic story. To the right of the altar, a painting depicts a Native American origin tale. The altar itself is draped with a rug woven in orange and red geometric patterns, and a big frame drum sits beneath it. And then, on the wall right behind the priest, a painting of an indigenous woman clasping a rosary and holding her hands in prayer. This is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The chapel is part of a shrine to her. Friar Mark Steed arrived five years ago to oversee it.

MARK STEED: And I was here for a couple of years. And then, all of a sudden, the pope decided to canonize blessed Kateri. He must have heard we were fixing up the shrine. I figure that’s the only reason he wanted to do it.

BRUCE WALLACE: There were a few other reasons, too. We’ll get to those in a bit.

The shrine sits here because Tekakwitha was born nearby in 1656. There’s a museum below the chapel, and an archaeological site that some think are remains of one of Tekakwitha’s childhood homes. After a museum tour, volunteer Helen Carpenter points me toward the site.

HELEN CARPENTER: Go to the top of the hill. And then, you have to cross the road. OK? Don’t forget to cross the road. And be careful. OK. The spring is over to the right. And we had Jake Finkbonner was here.

BRUCE WALLACE: In 2006, Finkbonner, a kid in Washington State who’s part Native American, recovered from a life-threatening bacteria after his supporters prayed to Tekakwitha. The Vatican ruled it a miracle, a major step on her road to canonization.

HELEN CARPENTER: And he actually was reaching down into the water to make contact with the person who had to helped to heal him.

BRUCE WALLACE: Much is unknown about the woman Finkbonner reached out to her at this spring. Here’s some of what we do know. Tekakwitha’s mother and brother died from smallpox when she was six years old. The disease left her nearly blind and her face badly scarred. French missionaries set up shop in her village in 1667. And eight years, later she joined a wave of indigenous conversion to Catholicism.

Soon after, she followed that wave to an Iroquois missionary settlement near present-day Montreal. Allan Greer, a McGill University historian and Tekakwitha biographer, says a relationship with the French missionaries was different than you might expect.

ALLAN GREER: It’s not just imitating the colonizer. It’s not submitting to the colonizer. It is trying to appropriate that which looks useful.

BRUCE WALLACE: Tekakwitha and a group of fellow female indigenous converts discovered a Catholicism not seen from the pews– a mystical, acetic faith practiced by people with special knowledge. And that was the knowledge they wanted.

ALLAN GREER: These women were not satisfied with the role of lay people who accepted the spiritual leadership of priests. They wanted to get what the priests had and what the nuns had.

BRUCE WALLACE: So they interviewed former patients of a nearby missionary hospital, and learned about the self-depriving practices of the nuns there. Then they mimicked them, going without food and sleep, sometimes whipping themselves. Tekakwitha added Mohawk-inflected rituals, too, including burning herself with hot coals, similar to a practice warriors used to prepare for battle.

ALLAN GREER: So here we have indigenous North American women drawing on both European and Native American cultural groups to create their own spiritual practices.

BRUCE WALLACE: Tekakwitha died in 1680 at the age of 24, likely a result of these hardships inflicted on a body already weakened by her earlier bout of smallpox. A Jesuit missionary who had been with her in her dying moments spent the next 15 years researching her life and promoting her as a saint.

ALLAN GREER: At first, this seems like a preposterous idea, because the whole colonial enterprise– and I’m talking about Spanish, Portuguese, French, et cetera– is predicated on the assumption that Europeans are spiritually superior to savage heathens.

BRUCE WALLACE: The effort languished until the late 1800s. By this time, Tekakwitha’s roots in New York had been rediscovered. And the US Catholic church was looking for some heroes. It was a time of deep anti-Catholic sentiment, when many associated the faith with poor immigrants crowding into urban slums. Tekakwitha, of course, represented the opposite.

In 1884, a letter to the Vatican from American church leaders set her on the long road to canonization. Not surprisingly, the indigenous people in Kahnawake, the Canadian missionary settlement where Tekakwitha died, have mixed feelings about her.

Orenda Boucher is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottowa and is writing her dissertation about Tekakwitha.

ORENDA BOUCHER: The few times they asked people in my community, my elders, about who she was, they rolled their eyes, and said, oh, I don’t want to talk about her, because she’s one of them. And I understood pretty early on that people saw her as a problematic figure that we had never fully dealt with.

BRUCE WALLACE: Boucher thinks the indigenous residents of Kahnawake should deal with her. In the last half century, many in her community have left the Catholic faith and started reexamining elements of native spirituality. She sees Tekakwitha as a guide to inhabiting both Catholic and indigenous worlds.

ORENDA BOUCHER: She never fully got away from living in the longhouse. She was adding onto it with this Catholicism. So I think that by reclaiming her narrative and reclaiming her story is part of my way of decolonizing history, and trying to understand why or how we ended up in this particular situation that we’re in now. She’s the conduit for all of that for me.

BRUCE WALLACE: Since the canonization, Friar Mark Steed, director of the shrine in Fonda, New York, has started to think about how his Franciscans can work more fully with American Indians– both the ones that live down the road and the ones that lived up on the hill back in Tekakwitha’s day.

MARK STEED: Get a lot of people who come in here, and they said, I don’t believe what’s here. There’s something here I just can’t put my finger on. I said, well, if you really want to put your finger on it, go up to the dig. That’s where they lived. One woman came back and said, I had to get out of there, because I was frightened to death. She said, I felt like they were all around me. I said, they were. It’s their land. They believe that those spirits are still alive. And so do we.

BRIAN: Bruce Wallace brought us that story. Earlier, we heard from Stephen Hackel, a historian at the University of California Riverside. His book is Junipero Serra, California’s Founding Father.

PETER: It’s time for us to take a short break. But stay with us. When we get back, a genre of 19th-century literature is born in a discredited exposé about nuns.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today, we’re marking Pope Francis’s historic trip to the US with stories of Catholics in American history.

Throughout the early 19th century, large numbers of Catholics immigrated to the US. They came from Germany and Ireland, with a huge uptick of Irish in the 1840s. The Protestant presence across the United States often meant any Catholics were met with staunch resistance, in the form of everything from the written word to mob violence. Let’s take a moment to explore an example of both.

PETER: In the early 1830s, a young woman named Rebecca Reed hit the lecture circuit in New England, regaling crowds with her strange tales. The topic? Her six months as a Roman Catholic nun. Reed had lived in a nursery and convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, before she ran away. The elegant brick building sat on the top of a hill– a tiny island of Catholicism in a Protestant sea.

ED: Reed’s lectures were basically horror stories. Her Protestant audiences devoured details of abusive nuns and bizarre Catholic rituals. The stories reinforced deeply held prejudices against Catholics that stretched back decades in New England. But they also fed local resentment of the pristine convent overlooking the town. And when rumors started circulating that another nun had escaped and then was forcibly returned, a Protestant mob decided that it had heard enough.

NANCY SCHULTZ: On the night of August 11, 1834 a crowd of men gathered in front of the gates of the convent.

ED: This is historian Nancy Schultz.

NANCY SCHULTZ: And they broke down the door of the convent. And they streamed in. They had torches. And they threw pianos out the window. They threw the furniture out the window. They took torches to the curtains. And they set the place on fire.

ED: So I’m taking that there were not police there to stop this.

NANCY SCHULTZ: No. In fact, the fire department showed up the night that the convent was attacked. They estimate that there were 2,000 to 4,000 people outside of the convent. And none of the fireman made any move to spray water or to try to stop the fire.

ED: The horror of the convent’s burning did nothing to temper the anti-Catholic mood in New England. In the wake of the destruction, Rebecca Reed actually gained an even larger audience by publishing a memoir about her convent life. Her book was an instant hit, and inspired a host of imitators. Schultz says that Reed launched a new genre of 19th-century American literature– the convent exposé.

NANCY SCHULTZ: This was a very popular genre throughout the 19th century. They were the supermarket literature of the day. And there were several– I would say almost a dozen– anti-Catholic convent captivity narratives published in the 19th century.

ED: But Rebecca Read was the first of these.

NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. Her book is called Six Months in a Convent. And it was published in 1835. And it was most likely ghostwritten by a group of male supporters. A lot of these convent captivity narratives, the women were not literate enough to put a book together. So these were pretty much books written by male committees.

ED: And what defined her book and the others in the genre that followed? What would we expect to find if we opened this up at the supermarket?

NANCY SCHULTZ: By standards of popular literature, Rebecca Reed’s book is fairly tame. She details Catholic ritual, such as licking the floor for penance, or having to kneel for several hours a day. And it’s really focused on rituals of the mass and what actually happens inside a convent, because this was really a subject of a fascination for people. The closed Catholic convent and the confessional, those were secret spaces that, to the Protestant mind, were foreign.

ED: So were people satisfied by her account? Did they find it exciting and titillating?

NANCY SCHULTZ: The book sold a lot of copies. 10,000 in the first week. Over 200,000 altogether. 200,000 copies.

ED: 200,000 copies would have made it one of the best-selling books by a woman in 19th-century America, right?


ED: Yeah. But it was not the best-selling book, because it was followed very quickly by another book in the genre, which turns up the lurid aspects of things quite a bit. Can you tell us about that book?

NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. This one is called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. And that was published in 1836. And Maria Monk wrote a very steamy exposé of a convent, with tunnels dug underneath between the convent and the rectory, where priests can have easy access to the women in the convent. She describes the murder of a nun who refused the advances of a priest. All the nuns in the convent put a mattress on top of her, and got on top of it, and jumped on the mattress until she suffocated. She described a pit in the basement of the convent, a lime pit where they would baptize the babies born to the women, and then murder them and throw them in the lime pit.

ED: Wow. Was this also ghostwritten?

NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. This was written by a committee.

ED: And these were men who were writing this.

NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. Most of the evidence points to the fact that she was never a nun at all, that she had been a prostitute. And the baby that she purported had been fathered by a Catholic priest, which she said motivated her escape– she wanted to save the life of her child– most evidence suggests that that baby had been the offspring of a Montreal policeman.

ED: Oh, gosh. But in the meantime, people are snatching these things up and believing them, right? So what was the effect of these books, other than selling a lot? Did they have social consequences?

NANCY SCHULTZ: Well, they did have social consequences, because what we see through the beginning of the 19th century is a mounting current of anti-Catholicism. And so the convent burning in 1834 and these two convent captivity narratives fertilize the soil for even more anti-Catholicism. And you see in the 1840s dozens of anti-Catholic newspapers being founded and widely read.

And what this anti-Catholicism shows is that even as we extend welcome, we often deeply fear the other. And this idea of how do we assimilate, how do we assimilate difference, I think this is still the essential question of American culture. And we struggle with this today.

ED: Nancy Schultz teaches at Salem State University, and is the author of Fire and Roses– the Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834.

PETER: The convent exposés you just heard about were popular in part because most Protestants in the 19th century had no idea what actually went on behind convent walls. But it made us realize, a century and a half later, we didn’t either.

BRIAN: As it turns out there’s a Trappist monastery down the road from our studios in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s one of just 17 across the country. So I took a trip out there with our producer Emily Gadek.

EMILY GADEK: All right. Here we go.

BRIAN: Our Lady of the Angels sits at the end of a dirt road. It’s on the edge of the forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The building, it’s nothing fancy. It looks like the kind of two-story brick church you might see in a new suburb.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Hello. May I help you?

BRIAN: Hello.


BRIAN: 13 sisters live in the monastery. We spoke to four of them– Sister Barbara, who helped found the convent in the late 1980s, Sister Sophie who came from India, Sister Maria originally from Spain, and Sister Cathy, who joined the community after serving in the United States Air Force for 15 years.

SISTER CATHY: I’m entering my 15th year in the monastery. So I’ve now been in the monastery as long as I was on active duty.

BRIAN: I know you don’t say mazel tov, but congratulations. Is that in order?

SISTER CATHY: Thank you. Yes, yes.

BRIAN: It’s no surprise that the sisters’ lives were nothing like the horrors Rebecca Reed detailed in the 1830s. Much of their daily life in that monastery revolves around prayer. Sister Barbara told us that their day begins at 3:00 AM. That’s when the sisters rise for their first of many rounds of prayer throughout the day.

But the nuns also work. For Our Lady of the Angels, that means making sinfully good Gouda cheese. People come from miles around to buy it. Here’s Sister Maria describing the process.

SISTER MARIA: I’m what we call the cheese cook, the one who– That’s part of the process of making the cheese, turning the milk into cheese. So besides put in the culture and all the things you have to put in there so that you get cheese at the end, most of the time we work in silence. So when we are working, we are playing with our whole body. So I do put a lot of prayers for the people who are going to have the cheese, for so many people who ask us for prayers, who tell us about their troubles in their families.

BRIAN: And just like any homeowners Sister Cathy says they have to put a lot of work into simply maintaining the place.

SISTER CATHY: So a lot of my time during the day is either doing plumbing, calling a plumber. And that’s where YouTube comes in handy, because there isn’t anything you need to fix that you can’t find somebody doing it on YouTube.

BRIAN: I have to admit, these nuns surprised me. They laughed at my jokes, unlike most people. They watched YouTube. And they had strong opinions about current issues like climate change. Sisters Cathy and Maria say they even surprised themselves by entering the convent.

SISTER MARIA: I never thought about becoming a nun. I didn’t like nuns too much.

BRIAN: Why do you say that?

SISTER MARIA: Well, we all have our own ideas of what people do. And I wasn’t the kind of person I thought that was going to be a nun.

SISTER CATHY: I had the same experience that Maria had. It was an oh, no kind of experience. I never thought a cloistered life as being for me. I’ve always been pretty active and enjoyed being in the world. But there were some clear messages that came. It just grew more and more in my heart, that, really, the significance and importance of prayer in my life.

BRIAN: I love writing history. But I will confess, if I could use that word, that there are days– and sometimes even months– where I have real doubts about my chosen life as an historian. None of you expressed any doubt about your faith itself. You’ve expressed doubt, perhaps, about being in the right place. Have you experienced those moments?

SISTER CATHY: Sure. I think that’s part of the Christian life. And doubt is the flip side of faith. It’s eventually what makes our faith even stronger. And I remember saying to our superior that I thought I had finally reached the point where I was pretty certain that I was– what’s the word for people who don’t believe in God?


BRIAN: Agnostic or atheist.

SISTER CATHY: Atheist. OK. I can’t believe I can’t remember these words. But I told her, I said, well, I think I’m atheist. I don’t think I believe in God anymore. And her simple response was, well, that’s nice. It will pass. That’s fine. And she’s right. It does pass.

BRIAN: Two of you mentioned that when you realized that you were being called, your response was uh-oh. And given that a pretty typical reaction, or, to put it another way, that this is an unusual form of life in this very modern society we live in, do you ever worry about the future? Do you worry about the continuation of this way of life?

SISTER CATHY: As far as worry, not worry. I think the monastic life will last as long as the human kind lives, because it speaks to something deep in the human heart. Maria was saying a few moments ago, this desire to give oneself totally to God and to receive as much of God as God will give in this life, to put it one way. But individual monasteries won’t last forever. No human institution does. And that doesn’t matter. So concern, but not worry. And the best contribution we can make to that is just living the life as fully with as much of our love as we can.

BRIAN: Thanks to Sisters, Barbara, Sophie, Maria, and Cathy from Our Lady of the Angels, a Trappist monastery in Crozet, Virginia. You can find more information about the sisters, including how to purchase their handmade cheese, on their website

BRIAN: Hey, Peter. Ed.

PETER: Yeah?

BRIAN: We’re talking about the history of Catholics in America today. And we got lots of comments on our website about something that I certainly associate Catholics with. That’s parochial schools.

ED: Right.

PETER: Right.

BRIAN: And parochial schools are set up, I’m assuming, in contrast to those secular public schools where prayer in the school is not allowed.

PETER: Well, Brian, as you might guess, the story is just a little more complicated than that. There is no value-free, faith-free public education in the 18th and 19th century. The whole point of education– that is, literacy, teaching kids how to read– is to read the bible. And that would be the King James Bible. It’s taken for granted by early common school reformers that this is going to be what’s offered in schools.

Effectively, it’s a Protestant education, especially at a time when there are a large number of Catholic immigrants coming to America, particularly in New England. Places like Massachusetts, where the common school movement takes off under the leadership of Horace Mann.

BRIAN: Is that the 1840s or 1850s, Peter?

PETER: Yeah. Yeah. Then, there’s a very self-conscious effort to Americanize. And that means to Protestantize. And lots of local parents, Catholics, as soon as they can afford it and– and this is a major effort of Catholic communities on a neighborhood, grassroots level– they build churches. That’s expensive. They build schools when they can, so that their kids will not be inculcated with these Protestant values.

BRIAN: And these are big political fights, that people are saying you cannot be inculcating a different religion than we believe in so-called public schools. Let us have our own schools. We will build on the great Catholic tradition of education. We know how to run schools. We will do it ourselves. All we want we want is the church and the state to be separate.

It seems like what you’re saying is that it’s the Catholics who give us separation of church and state.

ED: And I think one unintended consequence of this braiding across American history of parochial schools and public schools, and trying to figure out where the line is, that when the segregation integration crisis comes in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, there’s of a space in which–

PETER: There’s a model.

ED: Yes. There is a model, which could not have been farther away from the Catholic intention, or even the practice, where they’d often been pioneering in offering schools in segregated areas.

PETER: That’s right.

ED: Now, segregated academies emerge up and use a space that the Catholics had created for different purposes.

BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. And as the public schools become more secular, these Protestant academies, often all-white, begin to really take off in the 1970s and ’80s. And although they are formed for very different purposes, in fact, an alliance between all faith-based schools that begin to ask, well, why should all the public money go to public schools? That alliance becomes very powerful.

And it’s the only way to explain why today you have, roughly, 15 states or so who provide tax relief to people who send their kids to private schools. And you have roughly 13 states that provide vouchers to parents who can send their kids anywhere, including Catholic.

ED: And a final irony on all of this is that the schools have become ever more divided. The publics become ever more secular. And the private schools become ever more religious. It’s interesting how these things circle back in American history.

It’s time for us to take another break. When we return, one pope calls on American Catholics to stop being so, well, American.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: Hey there, podcast listeners. We’ve got it special project for you on our upcoming show on the ties between the US and China. We recently ran a story on San Francisco’s Chinatown, and how it was reimagined as a tourist destination in the wake of fires in the early 20th century. And that’s how many Americans view Chinatowns– as a stop on a tour of San Francisco, New York, or Philadelphia.

But for our upcoming show, we want to look at Chinatowns across American cities through the eyes of those who work, live, and grew up there. So if you grew up in a Chinatown or live there now, tell us your story. What does the American Chinatown mean to you? What parts do tourists never get to see, or simply misunderstand? You can leave a comment on our website, Or leave us a message at 434-206-1051.

Feel free to get creative. Give us an audio tour of your Chinatown on your smartphone. Or have a family member walk us around. You can record your message in voice memo on your iPhone, and email it to us at

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today, we’re marking the pope’s arrival in the US by exploring the history of American Catholicism. And much of that history revolves around the long road that American Catholics have traveled from a feared and targeted minority in the 19th century to a fully-integrated 1/5 of the US population.

BRIAN: And one plot point in that transformation is a Vatican encyclical at the turn of the 20th century. An encyclical is a papal letter sent to bishops of the church and released to the public at large. You might remember when Pope Francis made headlines this summer with an encyclical condemning inaction on climate change.

But in 1899, it was Pope Leo XIII who made headlines. His encyclical reprimanded American Catholics for what he called the heresy of Americanism.

MAURA FARRELLY: In its broadest sense, it meant an attitude that said, I have individual rights.

BRIAN: This is historian Maura Farrelly she says that Pope Leo feared American Catholics were being corrupted by living in a predominantly Protestant country. American culture, he felt, was too individualistic.

Throughout the 19th century, famous American priests like Isaac Hecker and Orestes Bronson had been imploring their flock to embrace American values. Pope Leo had a decidedly different take.

MAURA FARRELLY: The pope felt that this mentality that stresses your rights as an individual had the potential to create a number of what he called dangers. And so at one point in the encyclical he says, “These dangers– that is the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and set them forth in print to the world– have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful of both conscience and duty.”

BRIAN: That’s pretty tough stuff for Americans.

MAURA FARRELLY: Yeah. And if you think about those things that he’s concerned about, he describes the right to hold an opinion and to put it in print and share it with the world as a danger. That just grates on an American’s nerves. That grates on our nerves today. And it grated on the nerves of most Americans in the 19th century, as well.

BRIAN: So maybe this would help us from a modern perspective today understand a bit more. Who was the ideal American Catholic, as Pope Leo saw it?

MAURA FARRELLY: Yes. So basically, you were supposed to see your priest as your guider and your confessioner for pretty much every behavior that you engaged in, whether it was raising your family or casting a political vote. And what he was looking for was the kinds of Catholics who settled in Catholic neighborhoods and sent their children exclusively to Catholic schools, and, maybe, gravitated toward occupations that were also dominated by other Catholics, such that they would never really be mixing with Protestants and their dangerous ideas about individual rights.

BRIAN: But didn’t that just play into a lot of American prejudice against Catholics? Isn’t this just the kind of things that nativists were worried about?

MAURA FARRELLY: Absolutely, it did. And that’s why people like Orestes Bronson and Isaac Hecker– who, by the way, were native-born Americans who both used to be Protestants– that’s the reason they stood so staunchly against the Catholic Church’s teachings on the subject.

BRIAN: Aha. And what, specifically, were they saying to American Catholics?

MAURA FARRELLY: So Orestes Bronson, after he became Catholic, he started really paying attention to who made up the Catholic population. Who were his co-religionists now in the United States? And surprise surprise, he found out that they were a bunch of immigrants, primarily from Ireland.

And so he had a journal in which he would write frequently to his fellow Catholics. And he would urge them to change their behavior, and to stop being so parochial, and to stop being so deferential. He felt that the destiny– the true destiny– of America was to become Catholic, because he felt that Catholicism was the truth. It was right. It was just. It was what God wanted. But he also felt that Catholics themselves were not representing the Catholic faith very well in the United States.

BRIAN: And apparently, not representing it very well because they were listening to the word of the pope.

MAURA FARRELLY: Exactly. They were being the sort of Catholic that the pope was saying they should be. And Orestes Bronson was saying, no. You need to be a different kind of Catholic. You need to be an American Catholic.

BRIAN: Well, I could see why the pope would be a little upset about this.


BRIAN: Well, how did Catholics in the United States react to this encyclical?

MAURA FARRELLY: Well, the reality is that although there were a few very prominent Catholics who were advocating what the pope called Americanism, and were therefore being condemned by the pope, those prominent Catholics were in the minority. And the vast majority of Catholics at that point in time were not advocating the freewheeling qualities that people like Hecker and Orestes Bronson had been advocating. And so one of the ironies of the encyclical is that Catholics in America at the tail end of the 19th century were actually far less, quote, unquote, American as Leo is defining the term. But certainly, it was in the water in America.

BRIAN: There certainly was a danger of what he was worried about.

MAURA FARRELLY: Yes. Absolutely.

BRIAN: So what does this controversy about Americanism that we’ve been discussing, what does that reveal about being Catholic in America?

MAURA FARRELLY: I think it highlights some of the tension that exists naturally between a focus on the rights of the individual and a focus on the obligations to the community. And the American mentality is an extraordinarily individualistic mentality. And it is very much focused upon the rights of the individual, whereas the Catholic mentality is a communal mentality, and it is focused upon the obligations that people have to their community.

And so I think the Americanist crisis really highlights that struggle that Catholics in America had as Americans to be both good Catholics and good Americans. How do we reconcile these two aspects of our identity?

BRIAN: Thanks to Maura Farrelly, Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. She’s the author of Papist Patriots– the Making of an American Catholic Identity.

PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today, we’re exploring the long history of Catholics in America.

ED: Some of those tensions we just heard about between the American church and the Vatican were resolved in 1965 during a conference of sweeping reforms known as Vatican II. Officials in Rome took their cues from American clerics to embrace religious pluralism. This step, along with other reforms, signaled a more modern church.

And according to some scholars, for the first time, the council officially accepted the separation of church and state. Before Vatican II, that separation was a contentious issue, especially for Catholics who sought elected office here in the US.

BRIAN: Take John F. Kennedy. In 1960, he was only the second Roman Catholic presidential candidate in American history. His faith was a huge issue. Protestants, particularly in the South, worried that Kennedy would put the interests of the Vatican ahead of the interests of the United States.

BARBARA PERRY: That is, that the pope will be calling the shots.

BRIAN: This is Barbara Perry, Director of the Presidential Studies Institute at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

BARBARA PERRY: Not just the pope head of the Catholic church, but the pope this foreign monarch will be attempting to take over the United States if there is a Catholic president.

BRIAN: Angst about papal influence ran so high that Protestant leaders, including prominent minister Norman Vincent Peale, held an anti-Kennedy conference and drafted a public statement warning voters of the perils of electing a Catholic president.

BARBARA PERRY: Because Catholics are taught that the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. Well, to the extent that any public policy issues sloshed over into faith, or certainly had anything to do with morals, the viewpoint would be among non-Catholics or anti-Catholics that we can’t possibly vote for this John Kennedy, a Catholic, because he will have to call the shots in the Oval Office based on what the pope is saying in the Vatican.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.

BRIAN: This is Kennedy addressing a group of mostly Southern Baptist clergyman in September 1960, less than a week after Peale and his colleagues released their manifesto. In a five-minute speech, Kennedy faced the issue head on with this message.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote, where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

BRIAN: This is all a few years before Vatican II, where the church will officially change its position on the separation of church and state. How possible was it for JFK to state the beliefs we just heard and still maintain that he was a Catholic in good standing?

JOHN F. KENNEDY: First of all, he did attend mass every Sunday. According to his wife’s oral history, he prayed every night before he retired. But that was his private life. As he said, he was keeping his private faith private. What he was trying to do was keep the Catholics on board. But this is solely focused on the Protestants. So this is the time to defend himself, to go on the defense. And the fact of the matter is, he did have a record that was easy to defend. Because as he points out, he was not for those things that, perhaps, other Catholic prelates and, perhaps, other Catholic office holders were for, or that the pope or the bishops or the cardinals would have liked him to be for.

BRIAN: And I’d like to play one more clip for you and get your reaction to it. Here’s JFK about the history of religious freedom in America. Take a listen.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: This is the kind of America I believe in. And this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific. And the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened, I quote, “the freedoms for which our forefathers died.” And in fact, this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die. And when they fought at the shrine I visited today– the Alamo–

BARBARA PERRY: When he said to these people, probably most of whom had fought in World War II, or at least been in the service, he said, nobody asked me when I went off to fight in the South Pacific what my religion was. And then he tied in the Alamo. And he said, here’s the names of the people who fought at the Alamo.

BRIAN: Kennedy did not fight in the Alamo.

BARBARA PERRY: He did not.

BRIAN: I know that.

BARBARA PERRY: He did not fight in the Alamo. And you might say, boy, this is really pulling out all the stops, to go to Houston and talk about the Alamo. But by using these very poignant analogies and metaphors, and bringing in American civic culture and civic monuments and monuments to the very freedom that these people were fighting for, he was able to make the case. And this speech turned around Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale, who were satisfied by it.

BRIAN: Really? Did he acknowledge that, probably?

BARBARA PERRY: Yes. Yes. And Billy Graham as well.

BRIAN: Barbara, earlier in the show, we heard that as late as the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo was deeply critical about individual Catholics making decisions about the separation of church and state. From a Catholic perspective, how shocking was JFK’s insistence that he believed in a pure separation of church and state? How revolutionary was that among Catholics in 1960?

BARBARA PERRY: My parents, both very devout Catholics, believed very, very strictly in separation of church and state– in fact, to the point where they did not discuss their religion with their non-Catholic friends. And I think that that is what Kennedy represents in this speech. And some who have written on the history of the Catholic Church in the United States have pointed out that things like World War II, which brought together people of all different faiths in the fighting forces, as well as the GI Bill, which brought people of all different ethnic groups and nationalities together into the college campus atmosphere, I think that’s very much what my parents, part of the greatest generation– they were the same age as Kennedy– I think that that’s what he was representing. So I think it didn’t come as a shock.

BRIAN: That’s Pope Leo’s greatest fear.


BRIAN: That is the Americanization of the Catholic Church.

BARBARA PERRY: Indeed. And the fact that we know that Kennedy got 83% of the Catholic vote means that not everyone followed him. But he did that. And he also got about 1/3 of the Protestant vote. And in that very, very tight election that came down to a matter of 0.1% in the popular vote, that mattered.

BRIAN: Was Kennedy’s election a turning point for Catholics in politics? Or did Catholics have to continue to prove that they were just as American as their Protestant opponents?

BARBARA PERRY: Well, the good news, I think, for Catholics is that that election makes them, I believe, come into the mainstream of American political culture. And it also means that the Irish Catholic element that Kennedy, of course, was 100% a part of, seemed much less foreign now.

And so we might note that the very separationism that I believe reached its zenith for Kennedy’s election, for his nomination, for his speeches, and for the presentation of himself, is very much a part of his time, when in 1962, the US Supreme Court would ban organized prayer from the public schools. So really, Kennedy is reflecting that time. And we have had an intervening variable of the moral majority of the right, the evangelical Christian movement, and now, conservative Catholics running for the presidency.

So the separationism of the Kennedy years is really gone. In some ways, in Catholicism as well as in our political culture.

BRIAN: Thanks to Barbara Perry, Director of the Presidential Studies Institute at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we’ll be waiting for you online. Let us know what you thought of today’s show. While you’re there, send us your questions for our upcoming episodes. We’ve got shows on the history of China-US relations, populism, and disability in America. You’ll find all at Or send e-mail to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio.

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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.