Politics & Policy

Sinners and Saints, Immigrants and Gladiators

American Catholicism from Dorothy Day to John Wayne.

This past weekend in Newark, N.J., a Bayonne-born woman was beatified. Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich a Sister of Charity, was recognized for having lived a life of heroic virtue. She’s just the beginning of a story of holy ones who have walked among us, and Catholics in United States history. Knowing that, Image Catholic has published The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues, and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States. The Almanac is co-authored by Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, and Emily Stimpson, author of The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years and These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, NRO editor-at-large and senior fellow at the National Review Institute, they both talk John Wayne, beer monks, and other people and moments in Catholic culture and history that have been a part of American life in the past 238 or so years.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s the point of an American Catholic Almanac? Why does the country need such a thing? Is there a danger it will ghettoize Catholics?

Brian Burch: The Almanac was written to provide curious Catholics, and all Americans for that matter, with an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the extraordinary role that Catholics and the Catholic Church have played in American history. Readers of the Almanac will come to a deeper appreciation, as we did in putting it together, of the sacrifices, struggles, and heroics of Americans shaped by their Catholic faith. In many ways the stories contained in the Almanac serve to un-ghettoize the Church in America by shedding some much-needed light on the important ways in which the Church and its adherents have contributed positively to our nation’s public life.


Lopez: What’s the most important thing for both Catholics and non-Catholics to know about American Catholic culture? About Catholic contributions to American history and culture?

Burch: There is no one single takeaway from the book that captures the essence of all the stories contained within it. But perhaps one unmistakable thread is the varied ways in which the Faith permeates all aspects of culture. From Hollywood to politics, to health care, education, sports, and literature, the witness of Catholics in America has not been so much a public profession of faith, but instead a way of seeing and serving the world that presupposes truth, morality, sin, sacrifice, grace, and the hope of redemption.


Lopez: Tell us about the women. They are a big part of not just American Catholic history, but U.S. history, period, aren’t they? I’m thinking of sisters who built schools and hospitals in a particular way.

Emily Stimpson: The women who helped build the Church in America — and America itself — were a force to be reckoned with, that’s for sure. The first women’s religious orders to come to America had to survive death at sea, robbery, famine, freezing winters, and less-than-friendly natives (both Native Americans and anti-Catholic Protestants) in their quest to bring the Catholic Faith to America. But they were a resilient lot, and within a few years of their arrival, you had whole cities begging orders like the Sisters of Mercy or the Sisters of St. Joseph to found hospitals and schools in their towns. As the years go on, it becomes hard to find an important moment in American history where Catholic women weren’t playing a significant role. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, you can’t tell the American Catholic story without telling the story of some truly remarkable women.


Lopez: What is the “suffering and sacrifice” the Almanac aims to highlight? Is there something to learn from it today?

Burch: The history of Catholicism in America is replete with examples of saintly men and women who persevered amidst challenges both within and outside of the Church. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a Catholic golden age in America. Recognizing this helps to put in context some of our current challenges as Catholics — both within the Church and with our relationship to American society more broadly. It’s never been pretty. It’s in the messy adventure of discipleship that we make history.


Lopez: What surprised you most in putting the Almanac together? Who were you especially glad you met along the way?

Stimpson: One of the things I found particularly fascinating was how strong the black Catholic community was in 19th-century America. I’d heard of the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a layman in early 19th-century New York who did amazing work for the city’s poor, but I’d never heard of the Venerable Henriette de Lille, a young black woman in New Orleans who was groomed to be a white man’s mistress but founded a Catholic religious order instead. Nor had I head of Mary Elizabeth Lange and Mathilda Beasley — wealthy black women in Baltimore and Savannah, respectively — who did the same. Daniel Rudd, a former slave living in post–Civil War Ohio, believed only the Catholic Church could heal the wounds that slavery had inflicted upon the African-American community, and so he founded a newspaper committed to evangelizing his fellow blacks. Throughout the 19th century, you see this incredibly strong Catholic faith in segments of the African-American community, but in more recent decades that story has largely been forgotten. It was a privilege to tell at least parts of that story in the Almanac.


Lopez: Why does anyone today need to know about the first bishop of Denver? Does the current bishop of Denver even need to know?

Stimpson: Everyone needs to know about the first bishop of Denver! He was one of my absolute favorites. Joseph Machebeuf was his name, and if you’ve ever read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, you have some idea of what made the man so great. The character of Joseph Vaillant was based on Machebeuf, who came to America in 1839 from France with his best friend (and future Archbishop of Santa Fe) Jean-Baptiste Lamy. Machebeuf was a rough, simple man of boundless energy and seemingly limitless love. Wherever he served — in Ohio, New Mexico, and finally Colorado — he devoted himself totally and completely to his people. His heart was for evangelization, and his life was spent in service. If he wasn’t traveling through Colorado’s mountains in a rickety covered wagon, preaching the Gospel to miners, he was in Denver growing vegetables and chopping wood for the religious sisters he recruited to his diocese. His love for the Church and for others planted the seeds of faith in Denver, and from that love, today’s priests and bishops can learn a great deal.


Lopez: You note that “in most corners of America,” two individuals known respectively as “the Angel of the Delta” and “the Angel of Andersonville” have largely been forgotten. Why not let it be?

Stimpson: Because people like them show us how one person, who sees Christ in the poor, suffering, and forgotten, can change the world. The Angel of the Delta was Margaret Haughery — an illiterate widow and orphan who arrived in New Orleans in 1835 without a penny to her name. By the time of her death, however, she built two successful businesses from the ground up and gave a veritable fortune to the city’s orphans. Although she never owned more than two dresses at a time, she built six orphanages in her lifetime. And this was during a time when women couldn’t even vote. As for the Angel of Andersonville, that was Father Peter Whelan — a priest of the Diocese of Savannah who ministered to tens of thousands of Union soldiers in Andersonville Prison. At a time when no other member of the clergy — Catholic or Protestant — would step foot in the Hellhole that was Andersonville, Whelan cared for the sick, tended to the dying, mediated disputes between the prisoners, and even went into debt buying the men bread. He was an old man when he went to Andersonville, and eventually died from tuberculosis he contracted there. In one of America’s darkest moments, he was the one bright light. That deserves to be remembered.


Lopez: Who is the most disarming saint among those you’ve included?

Stimpson: He’s never been canonized, but the story of Archbishop Charles Seghers definitely took me aback. He was one of the youngest bishops in modern times — ordained for the Diocese of Vancouver Island in 1873, when he was just 33 years old, and Archbishop of Oregon City (now Portland) at age 39. More than anything else, Seghers was committed to evangelizing the people of Alaska, and traveled across the territory via dogsled to establish missions there. He even learned their various dialects so he could preach to them in their own language. (He said he never trusted translators to get the theology right.) Tragically, on one of those trips, Seghers was brutally murdered by one of his traveling companions. His death shocked the world, but it also led countless young men to enter the priesthood and follow in his footsteps. For good reason, Seghers is considered the father of the Catholic Church in Alaska.

Burch: I am inclined to answer this question with an entry from the Almanac that is neither a saint nor even a Catholic. The famed American poet Edgar Allan Poe never became a Catholic. But he reportedly spent many nights in long conversation with his Jesuit neighbors following the death of his wife. He died mysteriously at the age of 40, but not before composing a poem called “Hymn of the Angelus.” The poem disarms you with its beauty. Two lines in particular: “In joy and woe, in good and ill, Mother of God, be with me still.”


Lopez: Why highlight Catholic rogues, too?

Burch: No history of Catholicism in America would be honest or complete without mention of those for whom the full embrace of the Church proved too difficult. The Church in America has not been perfect. Every Catholic struggles, though some did so more publicly and with more profound consequences for the country and the Church. The inclusion of these stories affirms that the Church, both in America and elsewhere, is indeed what James Joyce called ‘Here Comes Everybody.’


Lopez: Who is your favorite rogue?

Burch: Living in the suburbs of Chicago, I can’t help but be partial to Al Capone. His life as a bootlegger and crime boss was the antithesis of the Faith he was born into. Yet amidst this life of crime, he was known to share his wealth with the Church, including the founding of soup kitchens during the Depression. His tombstone says it all: “My Jesus Mercy.”

Stimpson: I think my favorite was Gary Cooper . . . and not just because he was the handsomest rogue we covered in the book. Cooper was the kind of man who truly wanted to be good and do the right thing, but just couldn’t tame his wandering eye. Women were always falling in love with him, and he was always falling right back . . . even after his marriage. But thanks to the prayers of his ever-patient wife and the friendship of a tough-talking priest, he eventually quit philandering and found his way into the Catholic Church. His conversion was deep and genuine. It was also timely. A year after Cooper’s conversion he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. A year after that, he was dead. His story goes to show that it’s never too late for someone to change the course of his life. And it’s never too late to say yes to God.


Lopez: What does any of this have to do with “the ongoing debate over the place of religion in public life”?

Burch: The Almanac was originally conceived in response to the public reaction to the HHS mandate, where ruinous fines and threatened closure of religious institutions was met in many corners of America by a collective yawn. That experience confirmed that the struggle over religious liberty today is not simply a political and legal one, but also a cultural one. We cannot expect to defend the role of religious liberty in theory alone. We must find ways to recover a cultural indebtedness to the role of religious persons and religious institutions in our history. It was my hope that some of this might be accomplished by the telling of stories.


Lopez: Is it hard to cover Dorothy Day or John Wayne in one page each?

Stimpson: Absolutely. Wayne was challenging because he’s so quotable. He had this way of saying so much with so few words. For example, he praised the Catholic education his children received not by saying they turned out well, but rather by noting that “there wasn’t a Jane Fonda in the bunch.” As for Dorothy Day, she lived such a full life — full of tragedy and full of grace. How do you sum that up in 300 words? How do you do justice to a woman who went from championing socialism, anarchy, and free love to entering the Church and founding one of America’s greatest social-justice movements? That’s why one of my hopes for the book is that it inspires readers to go learn more about the people and events that interested them the most. The Almanac gives people a taste — a fun and interesting taste, I hope — but there’s so much more.


Lopez: How did Bing Crosby make it in?

Stimpson: Honestly? In part because he happened to be lucky enough to be born on a date when not much else was happening in American Catholic history. That was one of the challenges of writing the Almanac. Some days there were ten exciting events that happened on a given day, and we had a devil of a time selecting just one. Other days, pickings were slim. Bing Crosby was born on that kind of day. It wasn’t just that, though. Besides being one of America’s most public Catholics, the character Crosby played in Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary’s — Father O’Malley — epitomized the ideal priest of mid 20th century America. The success of those two movies demonstrated just how far Catholics had come from the days of the Know Nothings and other anti-Catholic movements. The movies, in a sense, were a touchstone in the American Catholic experience, and writing about Crosby allowed us to talk about that.


Lopez: Everyone should know about Catherine Doherty, shouldn’t they? What should they know about her?

Stimpson: Catherine Doherty gives hope to sharp-tongued men and women everywhere that there is a place for them in Heaven. She did not mince words. For example, in the 1940s, a self-righteous woman who was angered by Dougherty’s work with African Americans in Harlem lashed out at her, saying, “You smell of the Negro.” Doherty shot right back, “And you stink of Hell.” She was a truly remarkable women — a member of the Russian nobility who barely escaped the Bolshevik Revolution with her life; a survivor of an unhappy, abusive marriage; and a passionate Catholic convert who advocated for the poor and marginalized through Friendship House, the apostolate she founded. Now, she’s up for canonization in the Catholic Church. Her story is one of the greats.


Lopez: Do you intend for readers to approach the Almanac day by day?

Burch: Because the stories in the book are organized around an annual calendar, readers might find this the best way to enjoy it. However, simply flipping through the pages and reading stories at random works too. Each day contains a unique story that can be enjoyed on its own.


Lopez: Why begin the Almanac with a little girl from Cork?

Burch: The story of Annie Moore — the little Irish girl who was the first immigrant to enter America via Ellis Island — is a fitting opening to a book that tells the story of Catholicism in America. The Faith being largely an immigrant faith at the start helps explain the early Catholic struggles for recognition, but also why the story of its success and influence is so remarkable. The migration of millions of Catholics to America, and their subsequent integration and contributions, were made possible by a nation whose principles welcomed all who desired to live in freedom.


Lopez: Should bishops be gladiators?

Stimpson: Bishops should be what they need to be in order to face the challenges and opportunities of the moment. Like St. Paul, they need to be all things to all men. Sometimes, they need to be healers, binding up wounds in individuals and cultures. At other times, they need to gladiators, standing up for what is true, right, and good. Really, they just need to be fathers. They need to protect their spiritual children and they need to protect Christ’s Bride, the Church. The Church doesn’t exist in America today because of bishops who were worried about the New York Times liking them. It exists because of bishops like John Hughes of New York, Peter Kenrick of St. Louis, and John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati — bishops who were fearless in the face of evil and didn’t hesitate to proclaim the truth. It also exists because of bishops like John England of Charleston, Simon Bruté of Vincennes, Indiana, and Benedict Joseph Flaget of Louisville, whose personal examples of piety and charity touched countless lives. To both kinds of bishops, we are indebted.


Lopez: Why did you highlight Mario Cuomo’s dissent on abortion?

Burch: The public protest of Mario Cuomo against the teachings of his church remain illustrative of the ongoing struggle over how best to reconcile one’s faith and politics. Cuomo, perhaps more so than any other, helped articulate the ongoing catastrophic attempt on the part of public officials to separate morality and their responsibilities as public servants. Cuomo’s protest contrasts starkly with the many examples of others in the book who did not view the Faith as incompatible with public life, but instead as an invitation to lead others into the more excellent way of the Gospel.


Lopez: Why is Father Anthony Kohlmann’s “secret” important to know about? Can it convey a message to the Supreme Court about the importance of respecting the seal of the Confessional?

Stimpson: In 1813, a New York City judge wanted Father Anthony Kohlmann, SJ, to break the seal of the Confessional. Kohlmann had learned the identity of a pair of criminals during Confession and the judge wanted those names. But Kohlmann couldn’t give them to him. Church law forbids it. Eventually, a New York court sided with Kohlmann, and that decision helped establish a legal precedent in America that has always respected the inviolability of the Confessional. Catholic religious freedom demands it. How could Catholics trust their priests with their darkest sins if those priests were free to (or bound to) disclose them in court? Unfortunately, this past May, a Louisiana court violated that precedent and found a priest guilty of not disclosing a crime he learned about in the Confessional. The Diocese of Baton Rouge is now trying to appeal that case to the Supreme Court. But Father Kohlmann’s story isn’t a message. That entry was written months before the Louisiana decision. Rather, it just goes to show that no matter how much has changed for Catholics in America, much remains the same.


Lopez: You couldn’t resist including an entry on the beer monks, could you?

Stimpson: Who could resist a bunch of stubborn, beer-brewing monks who fought the radical Temperance movement in the mid 19th century? The monks actually hailed from Bavaria, but settled in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and founded St. Vincent’s Abbey in the 1840s. Following the ancient Benedictine practice, they brewed beer both for their own consumption and for retail. It was one of the ways they supported themselves. But temperance-minded Catholics, including their bishop, didn’t look kindly on those activities, and their superior, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, was forced to go to Rome to make their case to Pope Pius IX. Unfortunately, the compromise the pope proposed — brewing beer but not selling beer — only worked for a time. Eventually, the monks of St. Vincent’s had to stop the brewing entirely. Today, they sell coffee instead.


Lopez: What does it mean, practically speaking, to think little about your own comfort and much about Christ, which is what you say so many early American missionaries did? Can it really be done successfully in the modern day?

Burch: Reading about many of the early Catholic missionaries and adventurers might serve to inspire readers of the Almanac to think more deeply about what they are being called to do today. The heroic examples contained throughout the book began with a simple “yes” to God. I suspect most of those that accomplished great things did not set out to do so. They merely took the first steps in faith, and God blessed them for their courage and perseverance. God willing, readers of the Almanac might someday end up as chapters in a future Catholic Almanac.


Lopez: Why was the fairly recently deceased Jeremiah Denton important to include?

Burch: Like many of the stories and people in the Almanac, you cannot understand the courage and witness of Jeremiah Denton without understanding the role his Catholic faith played in his life. Surviving his years as a POW, including the gruesome torture he endured, was only possible, according to Denton, because of the Holy Rosary and the simple phrase: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give myself to you.” What better example could there be?


Lopez: You’re both young Catholics in America. What encourages you the most, what worries you the most?

Stimpson: Well, I don’t think either of us exactly qualifies as a young Catholic anymore. Thanks for the compliment, though! As an early-middle-aged Catholic, however, I think a tremendous bright spot are the young (and early-middle-aged) priests currently serving the Church. When I look at the seminarians I know and the priests who’ve been ordained in the last 15 to 20 years, I see much of the same passion for service and a willingness to sacrifice that you’ll find in the early American missionaries. That’s tremendously encouraging. As for worries, I suppose it’s that when it comes to my generation (Generation X) and our successors (the Millennials), I see two generations that have been evangelized more effectively by the culture than they have by the Church. Even among churchgoing Catholics, the presuppositions that inform their thinking about everything, from sexuality to children and work, are more representative of post-modernity than Catholicism. The Church has its work cut out for it, not only in reaching the unchurched, but in re-forming the Catholic faithful. That’s a challenge, however, that I think our spiritual forebears, who were constantly fighting the Protestant influence on their flock, can understand.

Burch: I found myself humbled in ways I did not think reading, researching, and writing history could do. Emily would often note how difficult things have been for the Church, and by comparison how little we have to complain about! Perhaps most worrisome is the question of whether we have men and women among us equal to the challenges ahead for the Church. While that may worry me, I can’t help but think that the communion of American saints, both canonized and not, are with us and available to us as fellow Americans. The Almanac helped uncover numerous intercessors that most definitely understood the challenges we face in being both good citizens and faithful Catholics.


Lopez: Who’s a good model Catholic in the business world covered in the Almanac?

Stimpson: I think Margaret Haughery — the “Angel of the Delta” already mentioned — is one terrific example. She turned the pennies she saved from her job ironing clothes into a million-dollar empire. She could certainly teach the guys on Wall Street a thing or two. Another fantastic example is William R. Grace. He came to the New World as a poor Irish immigrant, made a fortune in the shipping business, and in 1880, when famine struck Ireland yet again, financed almost the entirety of America’s relief efforts. After that, he went on to serve two terms as mayor of New York, fought corruption in Tammany Hall, and, after he retired, created a charitable foundation that provided job training and education to female immigrants. Through it all, the one constant in his life was daily Mass. Every day, even as mayor of New York, his first stop was St. Agnes Catholic Church.


Lopez: Can one really carve out a “friendship” with “spiritual forebears”? Who are you friends with if so?

Burch: If we believe in the communion of saints, then we most certainly are called to a fraternity with those saintly men and women who have gone before us. It’s hard to not to be humbled by the example of Blessed Junipero Serra. Blessed with an extraordinary intellect, he chose to become a missionary and to explore and evangelize the Native Americans of California. He vigorously defended the rights of the native peoples while also helping back the cause of national independence. I was born in the West, and often imagine what exploring California was like before it was developed and populated as it is today. Serra explored a land filled with natural resources and beauty, that he might spread the light of Faith. Would that we emulate his example in this great country we call home.

Stimpson: One of the great things about being Catholic is the knowledge that we’re never alone. Just as we have friends on earth praying for us and helping us through life, so too do we have friends in Heaven doing the same. At its most basic, that’s what Catholic devotion to the saints entails — asking for the prayers of our friends in Heaven and striving to follow their example on earth. While only a few of the people we wrote about in the book are officially saints, that doesn’t mean all the others don’t have much to teach us about what it means to love and serve God. Two of my particular favorites are Father Peter Whelan and Bishop Joseph Machebeuf. Both men amazed me and charmed me. They had such servants’ hearts. I’ve begun regularly asking for their prayers. Both were so eager to help others out in life and so devoted to the people in their care that I’m hoping by putting myself in their care and entrusting my needs to them, they’ll be equally eager to help me out.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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