Sense of Life. Articles in English. Catholicism in North America. Perseverance Despite Hostility (Part One).
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Catholicism in North America. Perseverance Despite Hostility (Part One)


The Pope’s words proved to be prophetic: upon returning to Canada in 1644, Father Jogues resumed his missionary work. In 1846 he was captured and killed by the Iroquois. Almost three centuries later, in 1930, Pope Pius XI canonized Fr. Isaac Jogues as a martyr for the faith.

Canada: the price of faith

The Christianization of Canada followed as a result of the French settling the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River. The river owes her name to the great explorer of Canada, Jacques Cartier, who in the 1630s and ’40s explored these lands as far as what is now the city of Quebec. The territories would become the pearl of France’s possessions in North America. Regular evangelization began in the seventeenth century. In 1609, Samuel de Champlain took charge of the French administration in Quebec. At his invitation the Franciscans (1615) and Jesuits (1625 began arriving from France along with other religious orders to undertake missionary work among the indigenous native peoples; namely, the Algonquins, inhabiting the regions north of the St. Lawrence as far as the western prairies, and the Hurons and Iroquois, who made their home in the wilderness north of Lake Ontario.

As elsewhere, the spreading of God’s word in Canada was frequently achieved at the cost of the missionary’s life. In 1646, the Iroquois killed Jesuit Father Isaac Jogues, who had been preaching the Gospel in North America since 1636. He was the first Catholic priest to reach Manhattan Island (New York). In 1642 he was captured by the Mohawks and subsequently tortured. After remaining in captivity for over a year, he was freed thanks to Dutch Calvinist   settlers of the colony of New Amsterdam (as New York was then called).

In 1643 (i.e. while Fr. Jogues was still living), Pope Urban VII called him “a martyr of Christ” and bestowed upon him the extraordinary privilege of continuing to celebrate Holy Mass even though, canonically, he was not entitled to do this, for the priest’s torturers had cut off and burned the fingers of his hands. The Pope’s words proved to be prophetic: upon returning to Canada in 1644, Father Jogues resumed his missionary work. In 1846 he was captured and killed by the Iroquois. Almost three centuries later, in 1930, Pope Pius XI canonized Fr. Isaac Jogues as a martyr for the faith. Sharing canonization with him were seven other missionary priests, who suffered martyrs’ deaths while evangelizing the Canadian territories.

The year 1648-1649 marked the most tragic period for the Jesuit missionaries working in Ontario. Five Jesuit priests — Fathers Brébeuf, Chabanel, Daniel, Garnier, and Lallemont — were captured and/or killed in separate incidents by the Iroquois and Hurons. Most of them were cruelly tormented (mutilated by degrees and burned alive), and yet, despite this, none of them renounced his faith in Christ. They endured to the end.

In 1763, Canada fell under British control. By the terms of the Paris Treaty, France formally abdicated possession of her Canadian territories. Although Catholics in Quebec were guaranteed freedom of confession and the right to practice their religion, yet in reality events proved otherwise. Successive British governments would make attempts to extend to Canada the anti-Catholic policies, which had been sanctioned in the British Isles by the so-called “penal laws” (see articles in preceding issues of LOA). As a preliminary to bringing the penal laws to Canada, the British imposed limitations on Catholic religious orders; for example, they prohibited the Franciscans and Jesuits from recruiting novices from within Canada or securing help from their confreres in Europe.

The year 1774, however, brought an abrupt end to such policies. With the signing of the Quebec Act, the British finally recognized the right of Catholics to practice their religion. Discriminatory practices were also abolished. No doubt this sudden about-turn of policy in favor of true religious toleration of Canadian Catholics was determined by the political situation in the British colonies in America, which were poised to wage their war of independence. 

The American colonies: puritanical roots

Among the American colonists, who took up armed struggle against the British for their political independence in 1776, Catholics found themselves doubly burdened. Not only were they subjected — like the rest of the population — to the inequitable (mainly economic) laws originating from London, but they were also the object of discrimination by the Protestant majority in the colonies themselves. 

The arrival, in 1620, of the English Puritan pilgrims aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, marks the birth of the British American colonies. The Puritans were a radical Protestant English faction (then persecuted in England), who organized their colonies by     persecuting the Catholics. (Despite the widespread view current in Europe, the roots of the United States are deeply religious, albeit marked with more or less latent anti-Catholic attitudes.)

From the very beginning of the Puritan colony’s existence in Massachusetts, Catholic priests were forbidden by law to enter its territory. A priest caught entering the settlement a second time faced the death penalty. Even the celebration of Christmas was prohibited in the colony, since it was considered engaging in papist idolatry.

The entire culture of New England (as the Puritan colonies in the northeastern part of the USA came to be called) was shot through with anti-Catholic sentiment. Children’s textbooks were filled with stories, nursery rhymes, and illustrations for the purpose of teaching and recalling papist crimes. One of the most popular children’s games in seventeenth-century Massachusetts was called “Break the Pope’s neck.”

Just how deeply rooted this anti-Catholic phobia remained in the minds of the founders of American culture can be seen in the last testament left in 1750 by Paul Dudley, one of Harvard College’s founding sponsors. The public lectures financed by the benefactor’s estate were to have as their aim “detecting and convicting and exposing the idolatry of the Romish Church, their tyranny, usurpation, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness in their high places.” The Dudleian Lecture series on religion continued at Harvard until well into the twentieth century. 

The religious fanaticism of the Puritans would achieve its loudest and most tragic expression in the so-called “Salem witches” trial. In the late 1600s, in the small town of Salem, local Puritans hanged over a dozen women for the crime of witchcraft. One of the victims, known as Goody Glover, was accused of something still worse. As stated in the court record, she “was one of the wild Irish, counted herself a Roman Catholic, and was able to recite the Our Father in Latin.” Saying the Lord’s Prayer in English did not save the hapless woman. She was hanged along with the other Salem “witches.”

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, discrimination against Catholics was the order of the day even in colonies whose official Church was the Church of England. (The Puritans rejected the Anglican Church, since they considered it “too Catholic.”) In Virginia such a state of legal affairs had existed since 1606. In force throughout this colony was a whole range of anti-Catholic “penal laws.” According to the law passed in 1631, only members of the Anglican Church could enjoy full rights of citizenship. In 1642, Catholics were forbidden to build churches in the colony; nor could Catholic clergymen remain there. In 1691, Virginia passed its Toleration Act, which was concerned mainly with putting up with the Non-Conformist Quakers, who were beginning to enter the colony in considerable numbers. The Act stated that, “henceforth freedom of conscience in the worship of God shall be enjoyed by all Christians, with the exception of Papists.”

In 1689, a similar policy was instituted in New Hampshire, where, as in England, in order to enjoy full civil rights, all citizens were required to swear an oath against the pope and “the errors of the Romish Church.”

The exception to the rule was the Province of Maryland, a colony founded by Catholics and named in honor of King Charles I’s Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria (Queen Mary). The territory was first settled by the Calvert family, who were Roman Catholic converts. Most of the colonists that followed were also Catholics, among whom there were — a thing unheard of in the rest of the American colonies — Jesuits.

It is well known that Protestants arriving in North America from Europe brought with them a whole range of Jesuit conspiracy theories. Women might be accused of witchcraft (as in Salem), but the Society of Jesus was held responsible for every other abominable deed, including organizing Indian attacks on the settlers. In 1675, during the Indian uprising in New England (the so-called “King Phillip’s War”) a British official reported to London: “We have reason to fear that these baleful Jesuit intriguers — sworn enemies of His Majesty’s Realm and the Protestant religion — played a part in these events.”

Contributing to this obsessive suspicion with the Jesuits was the fact that in the eighteenth century the British North American colonies bordered on Catholic Spain’s possessions in Florida. Among others working peacefully in these territories were the Jesuits. In 1702, the Governor of South Carolina, James Moore, decided to mount an armed struggle against the perceived Jesuit threat. He organized two plundering forays into Spanish Florida, killing missionaries, burning Catholic mission houses, and carrying off thousands of inhabitants as slaves. 

The Jesuit bogeyman reared its head again in New York in 1741. Catholic missionaries had been forbidden admittance into the city since 1689. After a fire destroyed a Protestant chapel and riots broke out among the black prisoners held in the local prison, the blame fell on the Jesuits. At the same time, there began circulating among the population of New York an authentic letter written by the Governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, warning them against a “plot by Spanish priests” to burn down the largest city in the British colonies. The scapegoat in this case proved to be an Anglican clergyman, John Ury, whom the mob identified as a clandestine Jesuit. The court condemned him to death, and the sentence was summarily carried out. The other alleged Jesuit conspirators, two whites and twenty-one blacks, were lynched. 

The period of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which ended with the British taking possession of French Canada, saw still another wave of anti-Catholic (anti-Jesuit) hysteria sweep the American colonies. Every defeat suffered by British armies was attributed to a papist plot. The Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, for example, saw the British defeats as “a threat to us on the part of German Catholics.”

In the Province of Maryland, the good times for Catholics ended in 1644. The less the Protestant majority among the American colonists tolerated Catholic possessions in Florida, the less they were prepared to put up with them at home. Thus in 1644, the Governor of Virginia, William Claiborne, invaded the Maryland. For two years Catholics in Maryland were forced to retreat into the catacombs.

The persecution ceased in 1646, when Leonard Calvert, a Catholic, regained governorship of the Province. Nevertheless, a quiet Protestant-Catholic civil war continued to rage in the colony until the end of the seventeenth century. In 1691, after James II was deposed as King of England, Maryland saw the introduction of the full measure of anti-Catholic penal laws. Henceforth, Masses could be celebrated in private homes only. The authorities offered large monetary rewards to anyone informing them of breaches of this prohibition. A priest caught saying Mass in a public place could receive a life sentence. All Catholics in Maryland were forbidden to bear arms, and were doubly taxed. (To be continued)

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in May 2016.




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