The Catholic Genealogists’ Feast Day: Lifting Your Family Tree to Heaven on All Souls Day


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A woman visits a cemetery in Czech artist Jakub Schikaneder’s 1888 painting “All Souls Day”

If there is one day that is the holiday for Catholics who are genealogists, it is All Souls Day. This is the day that our efforts to seek out the stories of the lives of our ancestors intersects directly with our Catholic faith and our responsibility to care for the souls of others. Masses for the dead are known to have been said as far back as the 5th century, but the memorial feast dedicated to All Souls originated in the 11th century and is focused on praying for all those who have left this world in the friendship of God.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Today is the day of all days to freshly print out our family tree, display as many photographs of our ancestors as we can, and send our prayers up to God for all of those who have gone before us – those who departed from us recently and those that lived generations ago.

All Saints Day (November 1), All Souls Day (November 2) and the entire month of November have also traditionally been a time for Catholics to visit family cemeteries. In fact, in many Catholic countries you can find cemeteries decorated elaborately on the days and evenings of All Saints and All Souls with flowers and candles lit “to illuminate the way of the departed souls to Heaven”.

The grave of my great-great-grandparents and their family members in Legrad, Croatia’s Catholic Cemetery decorated with flowers and candles

Whether or not you are able to visit a family cemetery today or have time to put together a display of your ancestral photos, this is the day that every Catholic should try to attend Mass and offer it for the repose of the souls of their family members as well as others who have left this life in need of our prayers. Although not a holy day of obligation like All Saints Day, the feast of All Souls is an important one. I like how the All Souls Day page on the Catholic Culture website describes it:

The Church, after rejoicing yesterday with those of her children who have entered the glory of Heaven, today prays for all those who, in the purifying suffering of purgatory await the day when they will be joined to the company of saints…The celebration of Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary continued on our altars, has ever been for the Church the principal means of fulfilling towards the dead the great commandment of charity.

“Le jour des morts (The Day of the Dead)” by French artist William Bouguereau, 1859

Today is indeed the Catholic genealogist’s feast day. It is the day when our research into the history of our family comes full circle with our reason for living as Catholics: to lift our souls and those of our loved ones to Heaven.

Here are a few ways that you can help to renew the memory of your ancestors and assist your family in praying for your ancestors’ reception into Heaven with the saints on this All Souls Day:

    • Attend Mass. Priests have permission to say three Masses on All Souls Day. Attend at least one and pray for your family members and others in need of God’s mercy.
    • Visit a cemetery. Your local cemetery may not have a beautiful candlelight procession on the evening of All Souls Day, but making a visit to the grave(s) of your loved ones or another cemetery within your reach is a traditional and valuable way to celebrate this special feast. If you’re interested, look online to see if your local cemetery has something special planned. (Like the All Souls Event at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery which features “music, warming fires and fragrant teas comfort[ing] the living, public shrines remember[ing] the dead”, and a Celebration Hall where you can “find space and materials to craft your own personal memorials”. Sounds like my kind of event!)
    • Do a little research and say a few extra prayers. Indulgences have gotten a bad rap in the history books, but they are alive and well in the Catholic Church. This Year of Faith 2012-2013 is a good time to refresh your understanding of this special avenue of God’s grace. Making the effort to say a few extra prayers while attending Mass or visiting a cemetery on All Souls Day in addition to making the sacrament of reconciliation is a special way to remember those who have need of your prayers.
    • Print out that family tree. If you’re like me, my family tree gets additions regularly but I don’t often take the time to print out the latest version to share with the rest of my family. All Souls Day is a great time to print a fresh copy of your research, post it on the wall or put it in a book, and share it with family as you pray together for those who have passed before.
    • Bring out the photographs. Set up a display in your home of photographs of deceased loved ones to refresh your family’s memory of those that have passed. If you haven’t done so, start or finish the ancestral family photo wall project you’ve been wanting to do for so long.
    • Make or visit an online memorial. If you are like me, most of your family members are buried far away. Online memorials give us a chance to “visit” the graves of our family members without traveling. I have set up  a number of family memorials on Find A Grave and have appreciated the connections I have made through the site with locals who have taken photos of my ancestors’ gravesites. Make a visit to the site to see if memorials have been created for your ancestors. If not, take the time to set up memorial pages and upload photos of them and their gravemarkers, or request a local volunteer to take a photo for you.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43-44)

It is a sobering experience to contemplate the feast of All Souls, no matter how elaborately or simply you commemorate it. As Catholic genealogists we are no strangers to death certificates and cemeteries, yet the prayers and focus of All Souls Day make it hard to ignore our own personal mortality.

French artist Jules Bastien Lepage’s 1882 painting “All Souls Day” depicts a man and two children carrying wreaths for the decoration of graves at a cemetery

The Handbook of Christian Feasts of Customs by Fr. Francis Weiser shares an Austrian All Souls custom:

In Austria the holy souls are said to wander through the forests on All Souls Day, sighing and praying for their release but unable to reach the living by external means that would indicate their presence. For this reason, the children are told to pray aloud while going through the open spaces to church and cemetery, so the poor souls will have the great consolation of seeing that their invisible presence is known and their pitiful cries for help are understood and answered.

If there is any truth to this Austrian legend, I hope that our “wandering ancestors” will look into our homes this All Souls Day and see a sign that we remember them and include them within the prayers of our family.

Beyond Faith and Reason: Catholic Scientists


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From time to time, I get to hang out with a wild and crazy gang of fisheries biologists.  They speak a different language as they discuss subjects like turbidity,  effluent limitations, and Secchi depth.

When I first heard that last term, Secchi depth,  I had to look it up.  Secchi depth, sometimes called Secchi disk depth,  is a measure of water clarity.  It is determined by use of a device called a Secchi disk.

A Secchi disk is a circular plate divided into quarters painted alternately black and white. The disk is attached to a rope and lowered into the water until it is no longer visible. Secchi disk depth, then, is a measure of water clarity. Higher Secchi readings mean more rope was let out before the disk disappeared from sight and indicates clearer water. Lower readings indicate turbid or colored water. Clear water lets light penetrate more deeply into the lake than does murky water. This light allows photosynthesis to occur and oxygen to be produced. The rule of thumb is that light can penetrate to a depth of 1.7 times the Secchi disk depth.

Upon further investigation, I learned that the Secchi disk was  invented in 1865 by a Catholic priest, Father Pietro Angelo Secchi. Although it has been improved upon a number of times, Fr. Secchi’s basic design remains in place today.

My discovery of Father Secchi led to an interest in other Catholic scientists. And indeed, history provides many outstanding examples.  The  list is so long that I’ve pared it down to five exemplary individuals.

Father Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)

Gregor Mendel, baptized as Johann Mendel, is universally acknowledged to be the father of modern genetics. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic. His family was German. He began studying for the priesthood in 1843 at the Abbey of St Thomas, an Augustinian institution.  Before entering the abbey, Mendel had worked his family’s farm.  He also studied physics and philosophy at Brno (then the principal city of Moravia; now in the Czech Republic).

After eight years at the abbey, Mendel was sent to the University of Vienna for two years.  At Vienna, his physics professor was another renowned scientist, Christian  Doppler. When Mendel returned to the abbey, he became a professor of physics.

Father Gregor Mendel

Father Gregor Mendel

Mendel had also studied astronomy and meteorology.  Most of his surviving academic writing concerns meteorology. But Mendel is best known for his paper, Experiments in Plant Hybridization.

Mendel’s magnum opus was based on his study of variations in peas which had been planted at the abbey.  He also studied honeybees, with which he had been familiar since his childhood experience on the family farm. From his experiments, Mendel derived two Laws of Inheritance. The first, the Law of Segregation, states that each individual has a gene or genetic locus for individual traits such as hair color, eye color, etc.  Each parent also contributes a gene to the offspring. The gene that becomes dominant will control the nature of the trait.

The second law, the Law of Independent Assessment states that any particular gene is passed from parent to off-spring independently from another gene for a different trait.

Mendel’s work was not widely understood during his lifetime.  It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth century that scientists embraced Mendel’s genetic theories.  Today, Fr. Mendel’s work is the basis from which all modern genetic science proceeds.

Father Jean Picard (1620-1682)

Fr. Picard was a Jesuit mathematician, astronomer, and hydrologist.  Born to a large family in La Fleche, France, he later attended the Jesuit College Royal Henry-le-Grand. In 1644, he moved to Paris, where he began assisting a math professor named Pierre Gassendi.  Together Picard and Gassendi observed numerous lunar eclipses.  After Gassendi’s death, Picard became Professor of Astronomy at College de France in Paris.

In 1761, Picard became the first person to nearly accurately measure the size of the earth.  His 17th century numbers were 99.56% of the modern figures.

Father Jean Picard

Picard communicated with other scientists of his era and made significant discoveries outside his main field of  astronomy.   Very little else is known about Fr. Picard’s life.

Ignaz Phillipe Semmelweis (1818-1865)

Semmelweis was not a cleric at all, but he was Roman Catholic. He was born in what is now Hungary to  a well-to-do family. He set off to the University of Vienna, intending to study law. somehow, he ended up in medicine. At age 30, he was made assistant to the director of one of two maternity clinics at Vienna General Hospital.  This first clinic was used for the training of medical students.  The second maternity clinic was staffed by midwives.

Semmelweis soon discovered an odd statistic: maternal mortality rates at the first clinic where the students trained had twice, sometimes three times the rate of the midwife-staffed second clinic.  The leading cause of maternal mortality was septicemia.
After eliminating all the variables he could, Semmelweis was left with the conclusion that the only significant difference between the two clinics was the staff. But why did the medical students, with superb academic training have a greater mortality rate than the midwives who had not the benefit of academic training?

The answer turned out to be rather simple: the medical students also trained with cadavers and the midwives had no contact with cadavers.  The medical students took no hygienic steps between cadavers and infant deliveries and often used the same instruments for both activities. When Semmelweis  realized this, he instituted a procedure requiring the students and staff at the first clinic to wash their hands with a chlorine based solution.  Within a month, the mortality rate at the first clinic dropped to parity with the midwife clinic.

Semmelweis had proven something the significance of which escaped even himself: that hand washing could prevent the transmission of germs between persons. He believed he had succeeded only in preventing “cadaver contamination.”

Even the simplest understanding of Semmelweis’ accomplishment drew scorn and ridicule in the scientific community. Semmelweis was forced out of his position and run out of Vienna.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Aggravated, outraged and bitter, Semmelweis began to speak out against his opponents. He wrote vicious screeds against them. His associates and family came to believe he was  insane and had him committed to an asylum.  He died there two weeks later.  Some sources say septicemia was the cause of his death.

Father Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878)

We end where we began.   Father Secchi was primarily an astronomer.  He studied astrophysics. After training by the Jesuits in Rome, Father Secchi embarked on an academic career.  He taught in the United Kingdom and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  When he returned  to Rome, Fr. Secchi was made the director of the Observatory of the College of Rome (now called the Pontifical Gregorian University).

Father Pietro Angelo Secchi

His work in astronomy was prodigious.  He discovered three comets, including one named for hm.  He created the first classification scheme for stars. He made precise maps of lunar craters and color drawing of the planet Mars. And he invented the Secchi disk for use in another field in which he was interested.

Faith and Reason

As said above, the list of Catholics, both clerical and lay, who have made substantial contribution to science is a long one. It includes Roger Bacon,  Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Copernicus, Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal, André-Marie Ampère, Enrico Fermat, and many more.

Some Catholics and non-Catholics question whether the Church can really exist successfully in  a  science-influenced world.  Aren’t faith and reason polar opposites? And by the way, what about that business with Galileo, whose publications were banned and who spent the latter portion of his life imprisoned or on house arrest for suspected heresy?

For what it’s worth, Galileo was effectively rehabilitated in the 18th century.  In the twentieth  century, Pope Pius XII called Galileo one of the “most audacious heroes of research.”  In 2008, the Church celebrated the 400th  anniversary of Galileo’s earliest telescopic observations.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds:

159      Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”

“Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

The Catholic Gene celebrates church “Doors of Faith”

Welcome to The Catholic Gene‘s celebration of the opening of the Year of Faith 2012-2013. Officially proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, this worldwide focus on faith will last from today, October 11, 2012 (the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Blessed Pope John Paul II), to November 24, 2013, the Solemnity of the Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King.

This special year is intended, according to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to “contribute to the rediscovery of faith” and to help “lead those many people who are seeking it to the door of faith”.

Here at The Catholic Gene, our readers (and some contributors) are made up of not only Catholic genealogists, but non-Catholics whose ancestors worshipped in the Catholic faith. We are a unique spot within the blogosphere. Today’s compilation of links highlights a wide variety of Catholic churches in many different places with many diverse stories. The authors of these articles each have a connection to one (or more) of these churches, whose “doors of faith” have played a special role in their lives and/or the lives of their ancestors.

…They called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how He had opened the door of faith…(Acts 14:27)

Our “Doors of Faith” celebration includes forty churches presented within thirty different articles. Included are a humble Appalachian mission church in Maryland, an iconic New York City cathedral, a Boston church on the Freedom Trail whose bell was cast by Paul Revere, and a Lithuanian church that looks like it came right out of a storybook.

There are stories of visits to ancestral homelands: one blogger took her grandfather’s pipe along so he could “join her” on her trip to his parents’ childhood church in Germany; another blogger received a tour of an ancestors’ church in Italy from a 10-year-old distant cousin who joked in Italian.

You’ll read about church choirs in Germany’s Rhineland, a temperance parade on St. Patrick’s Day whose proceeds went to the benefit of an Ohio church, and you’ll hear about a caged bear that was captured by a Chicago pastor!

You’ll read how one blogger (me) discovered an ancestor’s contribution to a Croatian village church thanks to the help of a modern-day resident of the town and you’ll be surprised to hear the connection that one Ohio blogger found between her parish and the church of her great-great-grandparents.

We hope you’ll enjoy reading these stories and seeing the photos of these “Doors of Faith” that have been important to our contributors’ families, and that you’ll be inspired to seek out the heritage of faith within your own families. Continue below for summaries of our contributors’ articles.

The ‘door of faith’ (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. (Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith)

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan is a much-frequented stop for tourists visiting the Big Apple, but few know the history of this grand building. Though she doesn’t have roots at St. Patrick’s, Ellie’s Irish heritage inspired her to write about the cathedral on her blog Ellie’s Ancestors for our “Doors of Faith” celebration. Her stirring article about Archbishop John Hughes, his tireless work for New York’s City’s poor Irish immigrants, and his connection to St. Patrick’s is one not to be missed.

Another church frequented by tourists is St. Stephen’s Catholic Church located on the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts. The only remaining church designed by the first American-born architect Charles Bulfinch, its bell was cast by Paul Revere himself. Yet last month’s celebration at the church was not focused on these famous connections, but instead centered on the history of the church’s role serving Catholic immigrants in Boston’s North End. For more of this story, visit my article An American Treasure: St. Stephen’s Celebrates 150 Years over at my blog A Light That Shines Again.

Through the help of an Italian cousin and his 10-year-old Italian-language-joke-telling son, Kathleen Scarlett O’Hara Naylor was introduced to the church of her grandmother’s family: Il Santuario del Beato Giacomo in the small town of Bitetto just outside of Bari, Italy. Hers is the story of a family’s devotion to a holy man who lived as far back as the 1400s, yet who continues to have a strong influence on the local people today – as well as those who have emigrated from Bitetto. Visit You Are Where You Came From for Kathleen’s story about her visit to the church in Bitetto and her family’s centuries-old connection to Il Beato Giacomo (Blessed Jakov Varinguez).

Marti Wallace of Marti’s Genealogy Adventures tells of her family’s 300-year-old connection to the church of St. Vincentius in Haselünne, Germany. She shares photos of her visit there, including her grandfather’s pipe which she brought along so that “some part of him would be in Haselünne” since he had never had the chance to visit his parents’ ancestral home. I was touched by Marti’s story of her great-grandfather’s childhood sorrow at the funeral held at St. Vincentius for his sister.

Also don’t miss Marti’s article Little Graces Connecting the Generations to read about her surprising realization of a connection between her parish and the church of her great-great-grandparents: St. Anthony Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Jacqi Stevens of A Family Tapestry shares the story of St. Anne Catholic Church of “Southtown” Chicago that saw much change throughout its history. The church began humbly with Catholic families meeting in homes on “the plain beyond the lake where Chicago eventually stood”, saw the opening of its church building in 1880, then disappeared when parishioners moved out to the suburbs and progress demanded the building of a new expressway.

Speaking of churches that are no more, I’ve written about two such Manhattan places of worship on my blog 100 Years in America. Both Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and St. Stephen of Hungary Catholic Church originally resided on East 14th Street serving the busy immigrant neighborhoods that made up the Lower East Side of New York City. Both changed church buildings (one because of an urban renewal project; one because its congregation moved uptown), but both still have thriving parishes today. Read their stories within my “Disappearing Churches” series: Part 1 (Immaculate Conception) and Part 2 (St. Stephen of Hungary).

Donna Pointkouski of What’s Past is Prologue is a prolific blogger who writes about her Polish and German roots. Her contribution to our “Doors of Faith” celebration is the Church of St. John the Baptist (św. Jana Chrzciciela) in Mszczonów, Poland. She has found family baptismal records at the church as far back as 1816. Visit Donna’s blog to view photos of the church and to challenge your Polish language pronunciation skills by trying to read the list of names of its parish priests back to 1658.

Jasia is also proud of her family’s Polish roots, and has written much about her ancestors who lived in the old country and those who immigrated to Detroit, Michigan. Visit her blog Creative Gene to see her “Doors of Faith” article: a wrap-up of four churches in Poland and four in Detroit where her ancestors worshipped. She has compiled photos of each of these churches with links to the articles she has written about them. They include Polish churches St. Lawrence in Wojnicz, St. Mikolaj in Zgorsko, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Przeclaw, and Lodz Cathedral; along with Detroit churches St. Albertus, Sweetest Heart of Mary, St. Francis D’Assisi, and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Donna Peterson’s Hanging from the Family Tree highlights two of her ancestral churches, one in which she has found family records dating back to 1732! Visit her blog to read about her family’s roots at St. Mel’s Catholic Church in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois and at St. Antonius Catholic Church in Oberselters, Hesse, Germany – where her family goes back at least three centuries.

Denise Levenick of The Family Curator has shared two articles with us. The first is the story of Rosalie Lindberg’s Chicago-Polish roots at St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in a Chicago neighborhood that looks very different now than when her family resided there in the early 20th century.

In “Dear Photograph” style, Denise and her husband celebrated their 35th anniversary by revisiting Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Montecito, California and taking some then and now pictures. Her photos are an inspiration to us to preserve the memory of our own personal milestones. How quickly our daily lives can turn into history!

Ever heard of a Catholic church attached to a brewery? In Pottsville, Pennsylvania the famous Yuengling Brewery and the Church of St. Patrick are close neighbors. The building is actually St. Patrick’s third church since 1827, although there were Catholics in the area for decades prior to that date. Visit my article Coal region Catholics: The story of Pottsville’s Church of St. Patrick over at Small-leaved Shamrock for the history of this first Catholic church in the anthracite coal region that at one time drew the interest of the first American bishop to be canonized a saint.

Speaking of neighbors, St. John the Baptist Church in Quincy, Massachusetts played a large role in the lives of members of the Tierney family for the majority of the 20th century – in many ways. Not only was the family very involved at the church, but they were its neighbors and lived across the street from the priests’ residence. Visit my blog A Light That Shines Again for the story Good neighbors: The Tierney family and St. John the Baptist Parish, Quincy, Mass.

Amanda, blogger at the ABT UNK blog, has shared a number of churches with us for our “Doors of Faith” celebration. Join with her to visit the beautiful Baroque Šv. Jurgio (Saint George) Catholic Church in Smilgiai, Panevezys district, Lithuania where her great-great-grandparents were married. It looks to be straight out of a storybook!

Stop with Amanda in Texas at the Gothic Annunciation Catholic Church, the oldest existing church building in Houston (built in 1866) where members of Amanda’s family worshipped from 1901 until the 1980s. She also introduces us to Mission San Jose in San Antonio, Texas (where Amanda worked as a park ranger for one summer), St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Houston, Texas (Amanda’s childhood church), and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Houston, Texas.

St. Nicolas Catholic Church in Evanston, Illinois was established as a German language parish and was attended by Amanda’s German immigrant ancestors. It celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. You’ll also enjoy reading how Amanda used a clue on a church door in a wedding photograph to figure out the name of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Old Town, Chicago, Illinois; and don’t miss St. Margaret Mary Church (also in Chicago) whose pastor kept a caged bear for the Catholic school children to visit!

Two more articles at the ABT UNK blog highlight Hawaiian churches: St. Benedict’s Painted Church near Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and St. Peter’s By the Sea Catholic Church in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Craig Manson introduces us to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois – a church that was the parish home for his wife’s family for seven generations (since 1722). Visit Craig’s blog Geneablogie for details about the church that left quite a legacy within this family, including inspiring several to religious vocations.

I love the way Kathy Gosz begins her article Catholic Choirs – A Joyful Noise Unto the Lord: “If you are writing a novel and you know your main character, your great-great-grandmother, came from a long line of Catholics and that…” Visit her blog Village Life in Kreis Saarburg, Germany to read more. She has used social history to research her family’s church life in Germany’s Rhineland within the towns of Zerf and Oberzerf (St. Laurentius Catholic church and the chapel of St. Wendalinus), and at St. Martin Catholic church of Serrig, and Saints Gervasius und Protasius church of Irsch. You’ll enjoy Kathy’s detailed look at German church choirs going back to the 18th century.

Katy Wech of the CentralPAGenealogist blog shares her family’s connection to the little St. Ann’s Mission Church in the Appalachian Mountains in Avilton, Maryland within her article entitled An Inheritance of Faith. Katy tells how her family first settled the area and how the entire church cemetery is probably related to her! Visit her article to read about the genealogical challenge presented to her by one of her ancestors who had lived in a neighboring state, died across the border in another state, and was buried back in Maryland at St. Ann’s.

Holy Angels Church in Sandusky, Ohio was the church home of Dorene Paul’s ancestors in the mid-19th century. Visit her blog The Graveyard Rabbit of Sandusky Bay to learn the story of her family’s role in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities of 1844 that included a public pledge in the newspaper against the use of intoxicating beverages, and a temperance parade whose proceeds benefitted the church.

The last article is a special one to me. Shortly after had I conceived the idea for and announced this “Doors of Faith” celebration here at The Catholic Gene, I received a message from a current resident of my ancestors’ village of Legrad, Croatia. Within a Croatian language history book, he had found information about my 3rd great-grandfather’s special contribution to the church back in the year 1858. I was thrilled to learn this bit of history, and to be able to share it here in celebration of the opening of the Year of Faith. Visit 100 Years in America to find my article What a surprise! Great-Great-Great-Grandfather’s “Doors of Faith” for the full story.

May our deepening of faith during this Year of Faith help us to long for justice and peace in the world. (from the Intercessions for the Year of Faith)

Thank you for joining us to celebrate the opening of this special Year of Faith 2012-2013 here at The Catholic Gene. We hope you’ve found some inspiration to seek out your personal heritage of faith within your own families, and we look forward to you writing and sharing it with us!

Share Your Family’s “Doors of Faith” at The Catholic Gene

Update: The Year of Faith has begun! Visit The Catholic Gene celebrates church “Doors of Faith” for our wrap-up of forty churches whose stories are told within thirty different articles by our contributors. 

Do you have ancestors who worshipped in the Catholic faith? Would you like to share photos and/or stories about a Catholic church (or churches) that played a special role in your family members’ faith lives? If so, please join The Catholic Gene in a celebration of Annus Fidei: the Year of Faith 2012-2013.

Pope Benedict XVI has declared a special focus on faith beginning on October 11, 2012 (the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council) and ending on the Solemnity of Christ the King: November 24, 2013.  The Year of Faith is “intended to contribute to a renewed conversion to the Lord Jesus and to the rediscovery of faith, so that the members of the Church will be credible and joy-filled witnesses to the Risen Lord, capable of leading those many people who are seeking it to the door of faith.”

“The ‘door of faith’ (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church.”- Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith

In honor of this new Year of Faith 2012-2013, the Catholic Gene is hosting a “Doors of Faith” celebration online. Here’s how you can participate:

  1. Share a photo and/or write a story on your blog about a Catholic church in which you and/or your ancestors worshipped that played a role in your family’s faith lives. (We’d love to see a photo of the “doors of faith” – the entrance doors of the church – but if a photo is not available, please at least share your story with us!)
  2. Send the link to your article to us by sending an email to CatholicGene@gmail.comDeadline: Friday, October 5, 2012. Extended to Sunday, October 7, 2012.
  3. Finally, celebrate the new Year of Faith with us on its opening day – October 11, 2012 – by seeing the photos and reading the stories of other families’ “Doors of Faith” that will be highlighted here at The Catholic Gene on that date.

Places of worship have played important roles within many of our lives and the lives of our ancestors. As this Year of Faith begins, we look forward to seeing the photos and reading the stories of the Catholic churches that have helped to spark the light of faith in the lives of your families over the centuries.

Please spread the word about “Doors of Faith” and feel free to use the image and logo above. See you there!

William’s Faith and Fortitude: The 200th Anniversary of Mattingly Settlement

“His Wife, His Horse…and His Ever Faithful Dog”

William Mattingly, founder of Mattingly Settlement, Ohio

It was 200 years ago that William Mattingly, his wife Sarah (“Sally”), and his faithful dog Schneider left their home in western Maryland and headed out into what was then the wild west: modern day Ohio.

Only thirty years before, the Declaration of Independence had made history. Ten short years before William’s departure, Lewis and Clark had made their famed expedition across the new nation.

William Mattingly was born in 1778, just after the birth of the United States of America. When he settled in Ohio in 1812, he was thirty-four years old.  According to Traditions and Genealogy of the Mattingly Family, 1633-1918 written by Rev. Julius Mattingly in 1918:

…[William] started out into the wild west to make his fortune. The entire make-up of his caravan consisted of himself, his wife, his horse, his trusty rifle and his ever faithful dog, Schneider. He set out on the old trail leading to Pittsburgh, thence westerly to the Ohio River. Here, with the assistance of some friendly Indians he was ferried across at what is now called Bridgeport, Ohio.

William eventually settled in Muskingum County, Ohio, giving his name to what would become known as Mattingly Settlement. He was joined by other family members from Maryland who hoped to find the same success in farming there that William had found.

From England to America: A Legacy of Catholic Faith

The Mattingly family had a strong Catholic identity that had its roots in many generations of faithful ancestors before them. Thomas Mattingly and his family were the first of their clan to arrive in America (around 1664). They had left their home in Mattingley, England in search of freedom to practice their Catholic faith.

Mattingley Church and its churchyard in Mattingley, England – the family’s original surname had the -ley ending (Photo thanks to James Sills)

Although the first generation of settlers found religious freedom elusive in 17th century Maryland, they managed to continue to practice their Catholic faith. This was partly thanks to their move to western Maryland, which was out of reach of the enforcers of anti-Catholic laws.

Ohio: Missionary Territory to Church Community

The faith of their forebears was important to the descendants of those early Mattinglys. They had moved their families across the Atlantic and then across the colonies in search of religious freedom. William Mattingly was no exception. Yet after his move to Ohio, it would be four decades before he and his family had the convenience of living close to a Catholic church. For the first seven of those forty years, the family had no opportunity to receive the sacraments. It was only when missionary priests began to visit the area that their three eldest children were able to be baptized.

By 1820, the Catholic families in the area were able to gather regularly for Mass, although getting there was quite a journey. According to Rev. Julius Mattingly, William “was a devout Catholic, never missing Mass on Sundays, making the trip to Zanesville (10 miles distant) every Sunday”. When in the 1840s the church in Zanesville needed expansion and the project ran low on funds, it was William Mattingly who put up $3,000 to furnish the interior of the church. (This amount is equivalent to at least $70,000 in today’s dollars.)  William also donated $1,500 for a church bell a few years later.

In 1855 the Catholics of Mattingly Settlement in Muskingum township received the go-ahead from the Bishop to begin work on their own local church: St. Mary’s (Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The church was placed on William Mattingly’s plot of land (though officially donated by John Mattingly, who had purchased it the same day from William).

According to The History of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1856-2006, One Hundred Fifty Years by Benjamin Factor and Patrick Smeltzer:

When not occupied on their farms, members of the congregation worked vigorously to build their church. Clay was removed from the field with which bricks were made. These bricks were fired just north of the church and the lime for the cement was made in the adjoining field.

When the exterior of their new church was finished in April 1857, the parishioners of St. Mary’s laid to rest their first member in the cemetery within its grounds. It was only fitting that this man was William Mattingly. He died at age 78, having lived to see the Catholic church of Mattingly Settlement almost to its completion.

Mattingly Settlement’s St. Mary’s Church and Cemetery are located in present-day Nashport, Ohio

St. Mary’s would serve William and Sally’s descendants and numerous other families who followed their lead, settling in Muskingum township and practicing the Catholic faith that so many generations of Mattinglys have so deeply treasured.



Congratulations to the Mattingly family descendants, who will celebrate the 200th anniversary of William’s settlement in Ohio at the 2012 Mattingly Family Reunion at St. Mary’s Church this weekend.

Mattingly Reunion at St. Mary’s Church, 1940

For more information about the history of Mattingly Settlement, St. Mary’s Church, or Mattingly family history, you might be interested in the following resources*:

    • Traditions and Genealogy of the Mattingly Family, 1633-1918 by Rev. Julius Mattingly (1918)
    • The Descendants of Henry Mattingly by Mgsr. Herman Mattingly (1969)
    • The Mattingly Family in Early America by Mgsr. Herman Mattingly (1975)
    • Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1856-1981, One Hundred Twenty-Five Years by Rev. H.E. Mattingly (1981)
    • The History of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary 1856-2006, One Hundred Fifty Years by Benjamin E. Factor and Patrick V. Smeltzer (2006)
    • Mattingly Settlement website – which aims “to preserve the historical, cultural and religious heritage of Mattingly Settlement”

*Several of the books listed above will soon be available on this Mattingly Settlement webpage free of cost in PDF form.

Ohio has a strong history of Catholic faith tradition. In fact, just this summer one of its churches (c. 1823) was elevated by the Vatican to the level of Minor Basilica, one of just seventy-four in the United States. For more information about the newly renamed Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio visit this article.

New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part II)

Building on the Past

In New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part I) we explored the need to preserve Native histories and culture. As citizens of a nation that has, in the past, set up programs and laws such as the Indian Boarding Schools that denied Native Americans the right to express their cultural traditions and language, we have the daunting task of acting against such violent forms of racism in our United States. Once we have honored and treasured the rich past and culture of our Native American brothers and sisters, we must strive to incorporate them into our Catholic family.

Enriching the Present

A statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha outside her shrine in Fonda, N.Y. run by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. This week attendees of the Tekakwitha Conference will make a pilgrimage to Fonda and Auriesville, homeland of Kateri Tekakwitha. (Photo by Catholic News Service’s Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

In 1939, the Tekakwitha Conference was established. This Catholic organization was developed to give voice to our Indigenous Catholics. The Tekakwitha Conference offers support to those in ministry to Native Americans, educates others on Native American issues and culture, and even holds an annual conference where Native spiritual understandings are free to be expressed in the Catholic Church. The Tekakwitha Conference is a prime example of Catholics inviting our Native American brothers and sisters to partake at the table of our Universal Church. In the past and even now, the Catholic Church has been criticized, and at times rightly so, for demanding conformity. This would definitely be a fair criticism of the 17th Century friars of New Mexico; rather than welcoming the diversity and value that the Pueblo spiritual tradition had to offer, the Spaniards imposed brutal conformity.

At one of our friaries in New Mexico, the friars incorporated  the customs of the Native community which they serve into the architecture of their chapel. The chapel was designed in the fashion of the prayer space traditionally constructed by the Natives of that region. The Natives would build a sacred room under the ground and the worshipers would gather in a circle. The chapel has a circular skylight to simulate the opening in the ground where worshipers would enter and seating that is placed in a circle around the altar. This is a wonderful example of how the friars incorporated the richness of the Native culture into their liturgical life. Instead of ignoring the Nativesʼ spiritual tradition, the friars enriched the present by valuing and utilizing the dynamic and diverse culture that the Native Americans have to offer.

For all of us researching our genealogies, once we come to understand the culture and history of our ancestors, we must make it come alive again by incorporated our ancestral culture into our prayer, liturgy, and even theology.

Just as old traditions from England, Ireland, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc. are incorporated into the life of the Church, Native American culture has an equal right to be welcomed into the spiritual life of the Church. For all of us researching our genealogies, once we come to understand the culture and history of our ancestors, we must make it come alive again by incorporated our ancestral culture into our prayer, liturgy, and even theology. While this is easily done for western cultures, somehow, when Native American traditions are welcomed into the Church there seems to always be an opponent who calls the diversifying of worship and spirituality “liturgical abuse” or “pagan”. Brothers and sisters, we are not a church of conformity, but of unified diversity.

It is our responsibility as the new Catholic missionaries to celebrate, understand, and incorporate Native American custom and tradition into the Body of Christ.

Working Towards the Future in Hope

Lastly, after preserving our history and enriching the Church with our ancestral traditions and understandings, we are called to lay the groundwork for future generations in the Church. When doing genealogical research, I am always reminded of my own mortality. For genealogical enthusiasts, we should ask ourselves how we will shape the world for our future generations who may be doing genealogical research on us one day. Will I be remembered for great suffering one day just as I remembered my Cherokee ancestors for the great suffering they endured? Will I be remembered by future generations with disappointment just as I remember my Franciscan predecessors of the 17th Century with disappointment? Questions like these call me to do my best to build up the Kingdom of God for those who will follow after me.

Letʼs say you are doing genealogical research and you discover that you have Irish ancestors who immigrated to America in the 20th Century. You gain some great family information and you discover the harsh prejudice that your Irish ancestors and many Irish immigrants faced at that time in history. Instead of just taking this as a historical fact to lament, the Catholic genealogical enthusiast has an obligation to respond. An appropriate response would be to work towards fighting the oppressive structures in place today that deny immigrants the human dignity that they deserve.

Conventual Franciscan Friars continue their service to the Native American poor. (Photo courtesy of Province of Our Lady of Consolation.)

For me, the response is a daunting one. More than one quarter of the American Indigenous population lives in poverty. The Native American reservation population today is one that is immersed in realities of poverty, alcoholism, lack of education, shortened average life spans, and the list continues. It can be easily argued that the Native American population is the most disenfranchised and marginalized population in our nation. Native Americans remain on the margins of society where they were placed when the European colonizers first arrived in the New World. What could I possibly do to care for this family of people to whom my ancestors belonged? One way is through my Franciscan Fraternity. As Iʼve mentioned, the friars still minister within Native American communities, and it is my hope to have the honor to serve my Native American brothers and sisters.

Additionally, as Catholics, we all have a responsibility to care for the temporal needs of our Native American brothers and sisters. Holy Mother Church has always upheld the principle of preferential option for the poor. We are compelled by the Gospels to care for the least among us, and I believe that it is clear to see that one of the least among us it the Native American population. Our Catholic Church should be dedicated to ensuring the rights and dignity of those Native American communities that are simply struggling to survive in a world where they have always been kicked to the curb.

Just as the Gospel Message leads us to care for those around us, genealogy research should lead us to care for the Children of God.

Just as the Gospel Message leads us to care for those around us, genealogy research should lead us to care for the Children of God. Genealogy is not simply a wonderful and insightful hobby, but like all things we do, it should ultimately lead us to better answer the Gospelʼs call to love and serve. With genealogy we come to appreciate the diversity, immensity, and beauty of all Godʼs Children. We, as genealogical enthusiasts should take time to appreciate this fact and reflect on how we can build up a more sanctified Church and a more just world for the generations that will one day be researching us.

Go Forth And Preach the Gospel at All Times!

Well, my brother and sister missionaries, maybe this was the first time that you have ever thought about what role Native American heritage should play in our Church…maybe not. Just as in the days of exploration the Catholic Church went about telling the Native Americans of the Good News of Jesus Christ, we too must continue the responsibility to minister to our brother and sister Native Americans. While the Church has not always done the best in preaching the Gospel, today we have a new opportunity. We have the opportunity to use our gifts and love of genealogy to answer Godʼs call to preserve the past, enrich the present, and work toward the future in hope.

We must be a missionary people to our Indigenous Catholics by educating ourselves on Native history and culture, welcoming Native spirituality at the table of the Universal Church, and by caring for Native American communities who act as Christ among us.

Go, therefore, and be the Gospel for all nations and peoples!

New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part I)

The Catholic Gene is pleased to celebrate the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha today, July 14, with this article about Native American Catholic roots by our new contributing author Trent Hale. 

Native Connections

I will always remember the horrifying mountain of papers that stood before me when I first naively took on the task of tracking down my familyʼs Native American ancestry. I had amassed a collection of old family documents, pictures, family trees, and random scribbles and notes that Iʼm sure my older relatives thought would be of use to me (they were not).

A simple glance at my maternal grandmotherʼs dark skin, hair, and eyes and her prominently high cheek bones would tip off even the dullest of observers of her Native ancestry. I had always been told by my grandmother and her sisters of our familyʼs Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors, but I wanted some more proof.

A simple glance at my maternal grandmotherʼs dark skin, hair, and eyes and her prominently high cheek bones would tip off even the dullest of observers of her Native ancestry. I had always been told by my grandmother and her sisters of our familyʼs Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors, but I wanted some more proof. So, there I sat, with a daunting pile of family documents and the wonders of the world-wide-web at my disposal, ready to find that empirical evidence I needed to prove our Native American ancestry. For generations far removed from the days of living on reservation property, the task of tracking down documentation of oneʼs aboriginal history can prove to be a most challenging task. I donʼt wish to bore you with all the specifics of my research, but I should say that I did find that evidence I was looking for. I matched several of my close ancestors to the governmental rolls and censuses taken of the “civilized tribes” (i.e. The Dawes Roll, the Old Settlers Roll, 1896 Census Applications).

The Native peoples were introduced to the Catholic Church by Franciscan Friars such as Blessed Juniperro Serra, apostle to California. (Photo by Ruben Pulido)

Furthermore, as a postulant of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (Conventual Franciscan Friars), I have another connection to my Native roots. Upon the Spanish colonizersʼ movement into what today is the South West United States, the Native peoples were introduced to the Catholic Church. The representatives of our Mother Church were the Little Brothers of Saint Francis…the Franciscan Friars. The friars journeyed with the wealth-seeking conquistadors of the Spanish Empire throughout present-day New Mexico in the hopes of bringing the Native peoples into the fold of the Christian Church. Of course this was not necessarily a time of peace and harmony. In an era in which there was a kind of “militant spirituality” in the Church, the friars came to the Pueblo people with the intentions of replacing their ancient spiritual beliefs and practices with that of the Catholic tradition.

Needless to say, the Pueblos had no intention of fully abandoning their ancient traditions, and the friars had no intention of allowing Catholicism to simply be an adjunct to so-called “pagan” practices. What this led to was an outbreak of brutality on the part of the Spaniards. Soldiers and friars alike violently imposed the Catholic faith on the Pueblo Nation. Tribal ceremonies were banned and “heathen practices” were severely punished. In 1675, the tribes of the Pueblo around present-day Santa Fe, NM region rose up in revolt. Approximately 2,000 natives took arms against the colonizers and slaughtered nearly half of the Catholic clergy in the region. This revolt prompted the Spaniards to flee south.

The Ysleta Mission in El Paso, TX is still run by the Conventual Friars who minister to the residents of the nearby Ysleta reservation. (Photograph by Donnie Raney of Raney Photography, El Paso. Used with permission.)

Today, the friars continue their missionary work amidst the Natives of New Mexico. While our relationship with the Pueblos has been rocky, a shift in missionary practice allowed for an opening of trust and dialogue. The revolt of 1675 was a sign that the original missionary practices would not suffice in the New World. The friars learned to incorporate Pueblo spirituality and culture into our Universal Church. This allowed for the Catholic Church as a whole to be enriched by the many gifts and insights that the Native Americans continue to provide.

So What?!

The reason I share this is because many times, after talking about my own research into my Native American ancestry, I am asked the question: “So what?” Maybe if youʼre reading this and you yourself are a lover of genealogy you have run into a similar question…or maybe itʼs just me. Although it may be simple in nature, sometimes “so what” has great depth to it. So what am I supposed to do with this connection I have made with the Native peoples of days past? Iʼve discovered my Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry and made the historical connection between the Pueblo people and the Franciscan Family of which I belong…so what? For me, discovering my genealogy is a way to preserve the past, enrich the present, and work towards the future in hope. Genealogy is not just a fun hobby or interesting research, but it is a way for us to accentuate that universality of our Catholic faith. Our faith is one that preserves the past, enriches the present, and works towards the future in hope. I therefore, would like to present these three aspects in context with my own ancestry and experience of Native Americans.

The work of the Franciscan friars has a long history within the Catholic Church. (Pictured here: Franciscan St. Francis Solano, born in the 16th century. This painting is located at Museo Nacional de Peru, Lima.)

Along with presenting these three areas of past, present, and future in the context of the Native American heritage, I offer an invitation: Those of us in the Church, of Native ancestry or otherwise, are called to be new missionaries to the Native peoples. We are invited to, unlike the friars of the 17th Century, bring the Native American tradition, heritage, and people to the “family table” of the Catholic Church. We do this by understanding our nationʼs Native American history (and for those of us who have Native American ancestry…knowing our tribal heritage), incorporating Native American spirituality and cultural understandings into the life of the Church, and by working toward a full recognition of the human dignity and rights of the Native people in our nation and in our Church.

Preserving the Past

Knowing that my own ancestors were forced to walk from the Appalachian Mountain Range to Oklahoma amidst the bitter cold, disease, and violence compels me to be responsible for preserving the true history of our tribe.

Today it seems as though the first thing that comes to oneʼs mind when thinking about Native Americans is casinos. It is a sad reality in this nation that authentic Native history, culture, and tradition has been, in so many cases, sold out for tourism. The slot machines, resorts, and buffets ease the Americanʼs conscience. Very rarely do Americans, while putting quarters into the slot machine, consider that the “democracy” to which they proudly belong is still burdened with the guilt of mass genocide that it carried out on the Native American peoples.

In considering my own Cherokee heritage, I find it truly regrettable that tourism has cheapened our tribal legacy. It is not uncommon to see, around Cherokee reservations, images of teepees and chieftains with large headdresses; this is regrettable because the Cherokee people did not live in teepees nor did their leaders wear long feathered headdresses. When we put a price tag on a culture or heritage, we devalue the human person that makes up said culture.

Of course, this act of putting a price on a people would not be uncommon to the American government. Most Americans are familiar with the horror that is the Trail of Tears. In this moment in history, the gold-hungry American government took the ancient land of our Cherokee tribe (which, in Native culture, is also considered to be a living part of the people) out from under our ancestorsʼ feet. Knowing that my own ancestors were forced to walk from the Appalachian Mountain Range to Oklahoma amidst the bitter cold, disease, and violence compels me to be responsible for preserving the true history of our tribe. I am compelled to never let my fellow Americans forget how we attempted to eradicate an entire race of people. I, and all Americans are also responsible to ensure that we donʼt continue the American legacy of genocide by allowing authentic Native culture to slip into the darkness of the past.

National Park Service map of the various routes of the Native peoples during the Trail of Tears.

When we take the time to actually learn about the true cultural history of a people, we start to see them as such–people. Very few realize that before the American democracy even came into being, the Cherokee people had an established democratic legislative body to govern the tribe. Very few also realize that we were able to develop one of the most efficient written syllabaries in history, or that we had a complex and rich spiritual understanding of the world around us. If each American, no matter the ethnic background, took time and effort to learn about the Native American heritage, America as a whole would realize that there is something valuable in the Native American people. If we preserve the true Native American identity (not the one portrayed by casinos or in pop culture), we preserve the humanity of an entire ethnicity. Taking care to preserve Native American history says to our Native American brothers and sisters that we find value in them and that we are dedicated to stop abuse of the Native American history to earn a quick buck.

The Cherokee people developed one of the most efficient written syllabaries in history. (Photo credit: Marek Nowocień)

Furthermore, as Catholics, for us to naively believe that the spiritual traditions of the Native American people have no value, would be a grave mistake. In order for us to be the Catholic missionaries of this new millennium we must also affirm and preserve the spiritual traditions and beliefs of the pre-colonial Native Americans. This too requires us to educate ourselves on what those beliefs and practices entail. With an understanding of authentic Native American culture, history, customs, and beliefs in our repertoire, we will have the foundation from which to accomplish the task of enriching the present and working towards the future in hope.

It is fitting that we take time to reflect on and education ourselves about the histories of a lost people. Preserving the past is the first and most important step to the task of welcoming our Native American brothers and sisters to the “Catholic table”.

Continue reading this article at New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part II).

A Catholic History Lesson on America’s Independence Day

Here’s a little Independence Day quiz for 4th of July readers of The Catholic Gene. Try your hand (without reading the answer below) at guessing the century and location where this statute was the law of the land:

…all and every Jesuit, seminary priest, missionary or other spiritual or ecclesiastical person made or ordained by any authority, power or jurisdiction, derived, challenged or pretended, from the pope or see of Rome…shall be deemed and accounted an incendiary and disturber of the publick peace and safety, and an enemy to the true Christian religion, and shall be ajudged to suffer perpetual imprisonment, and if any person, being so sentenced and actually imprisoned, shall break prison and make his escape, and be afterwards re-taken, he shall be punished with death.

The words above, believe it or not, are from a 1647 statute governing a portion of our fair land (the future United States of America) and can be found in The Book of the General Lauues and Libertys concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts (1648).

Other similar laws were enacted throughout the colonies.  However, according to American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States by John Hennesey, S.J., such a small number of Catholics actually set foot in Massachusetts and other colonies hostile to the faith during this period, that very few met with this type of punishment (though Quakers often did). These types of laws, however, writes Hennesey, ensured that “Catholic settlement was effectively prevented and foundations laid for the anti-Catholicism which observers have noted as endemic to the American scene”.

“The Founding of the Colony of Maryland” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, painted in 1853 (Maryland State Art Collection)

A relatively small number of Catholics did successfully settle in what would later become the eastern United States, most notably in Maryland, which was established by the efforts of the Catholic Calvert family (by the 1st and 2nd Lords Baltimore) under King Charles I in 1633. Among instructions to the colonists (of which Protestants were the majority), the governor and commissioners were required to:

…cause all Acts of Romane Catholoques to be done as privately as may be, and…instruct all Romane Catholoques to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion; and…treat the Protestants with as much mildness and favor as Justice will permit.*

Religious liberty has come a long way in the United States of America. Though established and governed by Catholics initially, Maryland’s history, like that of the rest of what would become the United States of America, would be fraught with growing pains regarding the establishment of religious freedom. By 1708, there were 3,000 Catholics in Maryland – a small one-tenth of the population – and they had seen major setbacks. Anglicanism had been established in the colony in 1702, requiring taxes and compulsory attendance, while Catholics could not vote or hold public office. Ten years later their right to worship privately was reinstated, but it would be a long road to religious liberty for the Catholics of Maryland and the American colonies.

The flags of the United States and the Vatican flying side by side

Maryland, however, had planted a seed for the future. In the words of Robert Baird, a 19th-century historian who was often critical of the Catholic Church:

Think what we may of their creed, and very different as was this policy from what Romanism elsewhere might have led us to expect, we can not refuse to Lord Baltimore’s colony the praise of having established the first government in modern times in which entire toleration was granted to all denominations of Christians.

As we Americans (many of us American Catholics) celebrate the independence of our country, we have a lot to be thankful for. A look back at the history of our nation cannot help but give us a better appreciation for the freedoms that we may take for granted each year as we put out our American flags and deck out our homes in red, white and blue for the 4th of July.

*Documents of American History, Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor, eds. 10th edition, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988.

The Catholic Gene celebrates the “Legacy of Religious Freedom”

“Answer to the Lament of the Irish Emigrant”

Many of our immigrant ancestors set off on arduous, expensive and potentially life-threatening journeys to the United States for various reasons, very few of them trivial. They left their homelands in search of opportunities for work, chances to own land, and other ways to better their lives.

Like the first pilgrims that set foot in what would become New England, many immigrants over the centuries also came to America in search of religious freedom, Catholics included.

Today is the first day of the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.  It was inspired by recent challenges to this freedom in the United States, as Pope Benedict XVI describes: efforts to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices” and the “tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience”. (Ad limina address to Bishops of the United States, January 19, 2012)

The Bishops have challenged Catholics to focus their thoughts and prayers during this two week period on the importance of the right to a living, active faith unhindered by the restrictions of government.

We need, therefore, to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time. As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad. – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, April 14, 2012

This topic is vitally important to people of all faiths, not just Catholics.  Here at The Catholic Gene – where we gather to share the stories of our Catholic family history – we would like to hear your stories. What has religious freedom meant to your family? Did your ancestors flee a country that would not allow them to worship freely (like many 20th century Mexican immigrants)? Did they meet with persecution because of their faith? Or did they play a role in preserving and strengthening their community of faith during times in history when religious freedom faced no obstacles?

Prayers written in the 17th century by Jesuit priest Andrew White, first Catholic missionary to the Maryland colony

As with many of our American values, the commitment to religious freedom has seen its ups and downs.  Do you have Catholic ancestors who first settled the Maryland colony later to be impacted by new laws against Catholic education and the destruction of Catholic schools? Do you have family members who told stories about anti-Catholic sentiment against political candidates? Or did your ancestors worship in other faiths and face religious persecution in other countries? Share your stories with us in the comments section here at The Catholic Gene.

The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith.  And it is vitally necessary for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it. – Blessed John Paul II, Baltimore, Basilica of the Assumption, 1995

Help us take time to remember the stories of some of those who risked their lives and their livelihoods for the ability to worship and practice their faith freely, and the stories of those that lived inspiring lives of faith during the springtimes of religious freedom. We hope that readers will be inspired to look at the history of our religious freedom in the United States, and join in prayer for the continuation of this vital liberty that is so important to us as Americans.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights

For more information about the history of religious freedom in the United States, you might be interested in reading Liz O’Connor’s article Approaches to Religious Freedom Have Developed Over Time on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.


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