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An American Church ?

Introduction – What is History

This question isn’t the kind that one would expect when wanting to find out more about American Church History, however, it is a question that has to be asked because if I give you what I perceive as Church History, it may be a different approach than someone else. History is an individual approach to the past, its impact on the present and what that means to me and to us. History is an Interpretation of events.

What is Church History?

Church history is looking at the growth in time and in space of the Church which we believe was founded by Christ. So, in other words, Church history deals with matters temporal but in the context of matters spiritual. That means two things. First, we, as believers must keep our faith in mind when we look at church history, and secondly, because of our faith, we are going to look at church history differently than those who do not believe. Throughout this document, I will be trying to look at the history of our church from a perspective that includes everyone concerned. However, the resources that we have to draw upon for this history tend toward a history of the clergy and the hierarchy. So, please keep in mind that even though I do not mention the role of the laity too much, it was the laity that was and IS the church in this country.

Is there an American Church

When we speak of church history and American Church history, are we talking about the same thing? The answer is yes and no. When we talk about the American experience of church, we are talking about an experience rooted in democracy, the due process of the law, a republican form of government, religious pluralism and finally, the notion of a New Land.

New France and New Spain

Our American Church history begins in France and Spain. As you are, I’m sure, aware that this country was first explored by the French and the Spanish. We can go back even further to people like Leif Erickson, the Chinese, and so on, but with the coming of Christopher Columbus, the so-called New World saw the first light of Christianity. It was the Spanish who came first. They were in evidence in Puerto Rico as early as 1511. The first permanent settlement on U.S. soil came in 1565 in St. Augustine Florida. This Spanish Catholic presence was always tentative due to Spain’s wars with other nations. We must also keep in mind that the Indians that the Spanish found already here weren’t always so accepting of this new faith.
The French had the parts of this continent which include Indiana. New France, (see New France Virtual Museum) as far as the church is concerned was headquartered in Quebec, in Canada. There were settlements in modern day Maine as early as 1605. Jesuits like Isaac Jogues, Brebeuf, Marquette and others were found in the mid to late 1600’s. In the mid to late 1700’s the Jesuits began to disappear from North America due to their suppression. The bishop of Quebec controlled territory which included our Indiana. The American revolution did not change that, at least not at first. The French church had an influence here, even to the point of helping the Americans, in the person of George Rogers Clark, to defeat their enemies, the British. Fr. Pierre Gibault helped Clark to defeat the British at Fort Vincennes.

Colonial Maryland

The English context, for all intents and purposes, begins with the desire for English Catholics to be free economically. This was the first and foremost reason for the establishment of the Maryland colony. Freedom of religion was a second priority. (see “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic”) These Maryland Catholics were unlike later immigrants. These were, for the most part, wealthy upper class Catholics. Among them were members of the Carroll family, one of whom, John, was a Jesuit who had returned to his Maryland family after the Jesuit suppression. After the American revolution, the United States and the land to the west were now under American control. Catholics were all over. As I mentioned, in Maryland they were more of the upper class, but in New York, Pennsylvania and out in Indiana, they were of the lower strata.

John Carroll and Baltimore – Beginnings of what we know as the American Church.

With the Bishop of London now having ecclesial control over the new United States, many people thought it would be a good idea to have an American bishop. Others didn’t think so. Rome wasn’t too keen on the idea, but on the other hand, the idea of a foreign bishop in dreaded England turned a lot of people toward the idea of an American bishop. In 1784, John Carroll was named Superior of the Missions, which meant that America was still a mission, still under the control of the bishop of London. Why the Bishop of Quebec was never named bishop of all America is not known.

There were already signs of nationalistic problems with people of different nationalities grouping together, such as the Irish in New York forming one parish, while the Germans in Philadelphia for example, hiring their own priest and forming their own parish. It should be pointed out that in those days priests were not bound to one diocese as they are today. Some were open to the highest bid.

Nearby, in Kentucky, Nelson and Scott counties already had eight Catholic settlements by 1795. In 1787, the Episcopal church named their first bishop of the United States, and this helped to break ground for an American Catholic bishop. In 1788 Catholics petitioned Rome for a bishop as well as the establishment of a diocese. They wanted this bishop to be totally independent with no interference in naming him, except for the veto of the pope himself. They insisted that the new bishop be American born. On May 18, 1789 John Carroll[1], the Superior of the Missions was elected by the priests of the country (I don’t imagine all of them were there) at Whitemarsh, an area just northeast of Baltimore, by a vote of 28-2 He was consecrated in London in 1790. Carroll promoted schools and in 1791 he invited the Sulpician fathers, a French order whose primary role was to train men for the priesthood, to open a seminary in Baltimore. Carroll wanted priests to be American trained, even if they weren’t American themselves. Among those that came to Baltimore from France was a seminarian named Stephen Badin, who became the first priest to be ordained in the United States. Badin later served in northern Indiana and is buried at Notre Dame.

Suffragan Sees in 1808

By the year 1808 the American church was growing rapidly. So much so that Carroll asked for a division of his diocese. It was in that year that four new suffragan dioceses were formed and Baltimore became the first Archdiocese. The four new dioceses were Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown
The first three sounded familiar, but the last one did not! Bardstown Kentucky was, in one sense, the gateway to the west. It was a town that was supposed to grow as the west grew, but this never happened. (The diocese eventually moved to Louisville) The new bishop was a Sulpician from France named Benedict Joseph Flaget.

John Carroll had dreamed of American bishops being elected by the priests, but this never became a reality. Rome has always suspected and perhaps even feared the American church because of its rapid growth and the attempt that we have always made to blend the elements of our faith with the elements of our patriotism, while at the same time recognizing the fundamental separation of church and state.

This is where I would like to talk about the fact that with the rapid growth of the church in this country there was, right from the start, a clergy shortage–>shortage of priests! Sound familiar? It was, perhaps, because of this shortage that the laity played such an important part in the early history of the American Church. The faith, which was so very important to so many was perpetuated and carried on by the whole church. Parents taught their children about God — it wasn’t the religious sister in a Catholic school. Yes, there were religious women in this country and many were teaching or working in hospitals, but that was not the norm. The “norm” was the layperson — men and women who carried on the faith when there were no priests or religious around — Not Father or Sister, but Mom and Dad. A fine example of this can be found in our own state of Indiana. In Vincennes, one of the earliest recorded baptisms, (the earliest record is a marriage that was entered in 1749), on January 28, 1766, it is written: …died Claude Boneau, aged 18 days, baptised in this parish by me. (signed) Philibert (cf. The Old Cathedral Library). This Philibert was a notary public, born in New Orleans. He died in 1786. Another layman, Pierre Mallet was appointed as the guardian of the church by Fr. Gibault until Flaget (who was not yet a bishop) arrived in 1792.


It was this lay involvement, which was a good thing in itself, that led to an abuse in the problem of trusteeism. (see also: Carey, Patrick. “People, Priests and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.) Keeping in mind the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, there were, in many places, a group of people who had banded together in good faith to build a church or found a parish. They began to compete for clergy and because of this the notion came to be that those same people could decide who would be their priest and what that priest could do. This is a far cry from our current trend toward lay involvement. Trustees tended to want complete control rather than a sharing of control with the bishop. The notion of trustees running a parish upset Rome very much. Rome wanted to maintain control over the American Church, but trustees acted without answering to ol of anyone. Trusteeism wasn’t always as bad as our history has made it out to be. In many cases, the trustees did a better job of running a parish than did the clergy. So called Congregational Incorporation was widespread among non-Catholic churches. Even today this is the case with many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. A group of elders or an elected group of trustees are responsible for hiring and firing their minister, seeing to it that the parish or local church flourished and so on. We are, I think, moving back in that direction, only with the right intentions in mind now. The first Provincial Council of Baltimore, in 1829, dealt with this issue by emphasizing the jurisdiction of the bishop over the priests in his diocese, even though that took many years to become the norm. Bishops could not sponsor a parish where the deed to that parish was not in the hand of the bishop. In the Diocese of Vincennes (later Indianapolis) one example would be the parish of St. Leon. In 1841, land for that parish was purchased by five trustees. The bishop, Celestine de la Hailandiere would not allow the parish to become a parish of the diocese until the deed was handed over in his name and the people agree to allow him to name their pastor. Another decree of this Baltimore council stated simply that donations to the church did not give the people title to it. To this day that is a bone of contention in many places. When there is dissatisfaction, the only way many people have of voicing their opinion is to quit giving. However, its clear to me that this is like shooting yourself in the foot. With the advent of Parish Pastoral Councils, Parish Life Coordinators and other forms of lay leadership, I think we’re finally getting trusteeism to be something desirable and not something for the bishops or the clergy to fear.


Even with the quick growth of the church there was and I think still is a lot of anti-Catholic feeling in this country perhaps due to the fact that the ultimate leader of our church is a Polish man who live in Italy. The English Protestant tradition of anti-Catholicism and the fear of the French and Spanish empires carried on in the early days of this country. Nativism and anti-Catholicism aren’t necessarily the same thing. Anti-Catholicism is only one part of it. Nativists today are people like the Aryan Brotherhood — people like David Duke who feel that there should be some purity in our races and that true Americans only pledged allegiance to this country and no foreign power like the Pope in Rome. The English tradition that Catholics were traitors carried on in this country. There is a supremacy in being born American and since many Catholics were immigrants, and those that were born here were, to tell it the Nativist way, dedicated to Rome first and foremost. If I may insert a little bit of politics — today we seem to tend toward nativism when we look down on the Japanese — not seeing them as competition, but seeing them as inferior orientals who shouldn’t be keeping up with us Americans. Nativism has reared its ugly head many times in our history. That would include the Ku-Klux-Klan as well as some of the movements of this day and age as well.

The Civil War

The Civil War obviously divided our nation, but the question has to be asked whether or not it divided our church? The answer is yes and no. Another question — why didn’t the church stand up against slavery? Rome was confused by all of this. Why were some bishops speaking up for and praying for one side or the other? The major issue for the American church was Abolition, but this issue was one raised by the people and not the hierarchy. In 1838 Pope Gregory condemned the slave trade, but not the notion of slavery. Even Catholics who favored abolition found themselves sometimes being hated by the abolitionists. In the meantime, the Church found itself busy with the huge influx of immigrants. This explained, somewhat, the church’s lack of action. At the same time, there was an economic element to all of this. The church could not afford to keep many of the things that it depended on for support if slavery were abolished. Archbishop Carroll, as an example, owned slaves. We have to put all of this into the context of the time. People honestly believed in the dignity of the individual, while at the same time also believing that slavery was morally correct. The bishops of the North were, in particular, in favor of the cause of the union. Archbishop Hughes of New York actually went to Rome to lobby for the Northern cause. Its important to remember that it was the plurality of the church that is what really made it American, just like the country itself. It is all of us in this melting pot that makes us American.

Civil War Aftermath: Liberal/Conservative — Vatican I and the American Church

The church continued to evolve after the Civil War. The influx of immigrants continued and increased. Bishops continued to press for their own authority. One example of the turmoil within the church was the McGlynn Affair. In early 1877. The Roman experience of church within the framework of freedom and pluralism was different from the American experience. In Europe the church had always been at the forefront of control. The church was part of the ruling class, while at the same time the church was part of the grass roots — the people were the church, but the leadership of the church were part of the European aristocracy. Now, I don’t mean that as a criticism, but I do want to say that it was hard for the Vatican to understand this American experience where the church was excluded from the state. They did not understand, in many ways this was a lot like some of the anti-Catholics, how it was that a person could seperate church and state. All of this bewildered the Vatican, but at the same time, Europe was not sitting still. Revolutions were happening in Europe as well. In 1848 a revolution broke out in the Papal States–land that the Pope controlled, which included a lot of land in central Italy. Pope Pius IX, who had been pope since 1846 had to flee the Vatican, which was invaded by Italian troops. Pius IX, up to this time, had been considered a reformer. He was continuing to adapt the church to this new world of democracy and change. However, when he lost his own lands, Pius IX became more conservative. He returned to Rome — only with the help of French troops — in 1850. By 1860, almost all of Italy had been united under the ruler, King Victor Emmanuel II. French soldiers continued to guard the Vatican and the Papal States until 1870 when the Franco-Prussian war broke out and all the troops left to go home and fight the Prussians. Victor Emmanuel entered Rome in that year. Pius IX declared himself a prisoner of the Vatican and it wasn’t until 1929 that Pope Pius XI signed an agreement with Mussolini which established the Vatican as a city-state As Pius IX lost his temporal and political power in the Papal States and Intaly,, he gained power within the church. In 1869 Pius IX called the First Vatican Council. This council only went to 1870 and was suspended because of the departure of French troops. At this council he pushed for and got the declaration on infallibility. The declaration was and is that whenever the Pope speaks on matters of faith and morals, doing so in union with all the other bishops and when he declared these pronouncements ex cathedra or from the chair of Peter, he does so without error. Now there have only been two specific instances since the council when the pope has spoken ex cathedra The first was when the pope declared himself infallible in matters of faith and morals, and the second time was in 1950 — just 42 years ago — when Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible teaching. Forty six American bishops attended the First Vatican Council. No one really believed that it would amount to much, but Pius IX wanted something to help him stem the tide of nationalism and anti clerical feeling that pervaded Europe. Obviously, for the American bishops, the idea of infallibility presented a special problem. Anti-Catholics in this country certainly felt that we were a church of superstitions rather than a church of anything else. For American bishops to support a doctrine of infallibility would confirm, for those anti-Catholics, all that they believed already about us. [2],

Kenrick — Little Rock vs. Big Rock

There were only a few American bishops who fully supported this doctrine. About 80% felt nothing should be said, and when the time came to vote on it, 25 American bishops voted to support it. Three bishops — Kenrick of St. Louis, Verot of Savannah and Domenec of Pittsburgh — left the council early so they wouldn’t have to cast a negative vote, and one bishop — Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock — voted against it. He was one of two bishops at the council who did so. Archbishop Kenrick became kind of a recluse and never spoke publicly against the doctrine, but he refused to support it as well. Although he remained Archbishop of St. Louis, he was given a helper bishop who actually ran the diocese. American bishops had tried, although not all, to have the Council make positive statements about the faith. However, the tone was a defensive one. The Council seemed to be a last effort of the church to hang on to a time when things were different. The late 1800’s were seeing great changes in the world. Vatican Council I discouraged the kind of initiatives that the American bishops had taken in earlier years and the growing conservatism of the international church began to clash with the openness of the American church. Openness to the new labor movements, openness to more and more lay involvement.

Ethnic Catholicism and Immigration

The largest influx of immigrants came between 1880 and 1910. These were mostly Irish, German and Italian. These immigrants provided cheap labor. This in turn also led to more class struggle and the church did what it could in terms of more orphanages and schools. That was the answer at that time to the plight of the poor. The Catholic population nearly tripled from 1880-1910. Most, as I said, settled in the cities in factory and lower economic strata jobs. Catholics continued to see themselves as a seperate entity. It was still us against them. The Catholic philosphy was not, for the most part, one that saw all of this as a means to bring about social change, but rather as an answer to a need. As if to say that Catholics have always been the poor and always would be. Nothing changes, everything remains static.


With all of the problems of the immigrants, there was one thing that came into being, which no one probably anticipated — namely, the melting pot. European immigrants, although they remained true to their origins, began to become Americans. For some this Americanization was an important part of the growth of the American church. For others, it represented a threat — a threat in a number of ways. In terms of Americanizing, the leadership within the hierarchy consisted mainly of Archbishop John Ireland of Minneapolis, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who was recognized as the honorary primal bishop, and others who felt that American life could intertwine with Catholic life. The idea was to assimilate people into American life. [3] This so-called liberal wing was open to American customs and they wanted to avoid questions about allegience to America vs. allegience to the Pope. There was an important sticking point in all of this and that was the foreign speaking members of the American church. The Germans protested that they were being treated like second class citizens by predominantly Irish bishops. This complaint was valid in many cases. In our diocese, we eventually had a vicar general for the Germans only. On the other side were bishops like Michael Corrigan of New York and Bishop McQuaid of Rochester. This conservative group also included, for the most part, the Bishop of Vincennes, Francis Chatard. These bishops saw the ideas of Gibbons and Ireland to be in error. This so-called conservative wing were much more legalistic in their approach. Nativism was still rearing its ugly head in the form of an organization known as the American Protective Association. The APA accused Catholics of having split loyalties. Catholic liberals said that Rome was only our spiritual leader. Our view of seperation of church and state was different from Rome’s. Rome viewed American catholicism with some alarm. In retrospect we can see that there never really was a threat of a seperate American Catholic Church. Conservatives and liberals went back and forth. Fr. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers was a convert who saw American life ad church life as one. He believed that we should adapt ourselves to the culture up to a point. Conservatives would write to Rome and complain and then Rome would write to Gibbons, as leader of the American church, and ask him to explain. People like Abp. Ireland got involved in partisan politics, which at that time wasn’t unheard of. Ireland spoke at a Republican party rally. Keep in mind that the Republicans were the liberal party back then. Bishop McQuaid actually denounced Irealnd from the pulpit. Bishops don’t do that and McQuaid almost lost his see. On January 6, 1895, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter on Americanism. In 1899 he issued a pastoral letter which condemned a number of ideas and he lumped them under a title of Americanism. Leo condemed adaptation of the church to modern methods. This sin’t what Ireland, Gibbons and Hecker wanted, but this is what Leo condemned. Gibbons wrote the pope to tell him that these things didn’t really exist in the American church. Gibbons wished to end the controversy. Finally, in 1902, shortly before his death, Leo wrote to Gibbons and expressed his belief that many of his conclusions had been wrong. He didn’t come right out and say it, but he inferred it.

Catholic University

Part of the controversy at this time had to do with the establishment of the Catholic University. So called liberal Catholics saw it as a means of furthering the growth of the church as an American experience. The conservatives opposed the university probably as much because of the people who were pushing for it as they were against the ideals of its founding.

Secret Societies

Coinciding with the beginnings of the labor movement in this country, we had all sort of fraternal organizations. For Catholics, who were still considered outside the mainstream, organizations similar to those organized by non-Catholics began to spring up. How the church would side with these organization, particularly those having ties with labor, was yet to be seen. The problem, as seen from church authority, was that these organizations required such things as loyalty oaths, secretiveness ans so on. This was seen as a threat to church authority. The Catholic layperson, on the other hand, saw it differently.

The McGlynn Affair:

In June 1877, 75,000 people marched in protest over the removal of Fr. Edward McGlynn who had been speaking out in favor of organized labor. McGlynn had spoken in favor of the ideas of Henry George, an economist who advocated a single tax on the increased value of real estate. To some Catholics, this sounded like an attack on private property. McGlynn’s parish in New York had always been at the forefront of the sociual gospel movement. Cardinal McCloskey of New York had gotten McGlynn to tone down his rhetoric, but when McCloskey died, McGlynn no longer felt obliged to remain silent. Archbishop Corrigan, who succeeded McCloskey ordered McGlynn to be silent. McGlynn said his minitry drew its power from the people, not from the bishop. McGlynn was called to Rome to explain all this and he refused. He was excommunicated in 1887, but returned to the church in 1892. All of this brought the controversy to the hierarchy since McGlynn was supported — up to a point — by Cardinal Gibbons. This angered Corrigan who saw it as meddling. Corrigan had tried to get Rome to speak out againt Henry George and similar thought. Gibbons, who always tried to compromise, blocked this. As an aside, I want to mention that Archbishop Corrigan, who pretty much led the conservative side of the American church in those days, was joined, for the most part, by our bishop, Francis Silas Chatard

Knights of Labor:

The movement within Catholicism which caused the most stir was a group called the Knights of Labor. Bishops spoke out against this organization because it was viewed as a secret society which meant that it was somehow anit-Catholic. The Knights of Labor were the forerunner of the AF of L. Bishops were, in many cases, anti-union. It took the urging of people like Cardinal Gobbons to change the church’s stand on issues like this. The pope, Leo XIII issued his famous encyclical, on work, Rerum Novarum which was considered a boost in the arm for pro-labor factions in the church. On the other hand, few bishops paid much attention to it. The Knights of Labor began to wane in the late 1800’s and it was generally replaced by the AFofL.

Catholic Schools

Also at this time we had the beginnings of the Catholic school movement — a move to put a Catholic school in every parish. That’s wasn’t too practical a move, even in those days. However, many many schools did become a reality and they were staffed for the most part with religious women.

Spanish American War — America vs. a Catholic Country

This was was viewed by the Vatican as Americans fighting a Catholic Country. The Church-State issue arose again. However, the church pretyy much remained neutral in both countries, trying to negotiate. Bishop Ireland tried to intervene with President McKinley. On April 20, 1898 Congress passed a resolution requiring Spain to give up Cuba. The Vatican had been led to believe that Spain would acquiese, but that was untrue. McKinley attempted to get the Vatican to get Spain to make concessions. In the meantime, the Cuban bishops wanted whoever was in charge to keep the church-state as one. This was foreign to the American seperation of church-state.

World War I — Nationalism:

During WW-I, there were, of course, still large numbers of recent immigrants here. Some of the feeling tended toward Germany. The Irish hated the British, so they too favored Germany (all this is a generalization). Those wanting the melting pot to work wanted Catholics to support the U.S. effort, whatever it may be. A lot of the ethnic problems were muted when almost anything German became bad. The bottom line here is that Cathlic opinion did not affect National policy.

NCWC and the beginning of NCCB

During the war, the KofC raised 10 million dollars toward the war effort. This organization of laypersons was seen, by some, as a threat to the leadership of the hierarchy. A meeting at Catholic University begat the NCWC or National Catholic War Council, later known as the National Catholic Welfare Conference. 115 delegates came with the idea that some sort of war policy — support for chaplains, etc. would be formulated and put the hierarchy in the forefront of any Catholic action. Gibbons did not want a national organization, but he and others realized they needed to do something. WW-I had a positive influence. It thrust the church into a new light, got Catholics involved and showed our true patriotism. The church continued to work itself into society.

Aftermath to WW-I and the Depression

The church continued to work into society. Catholics called for care of the poor. The Catholic Worker Movement led by Dorothy Day became active. We had groups like the National Catholic Convert League, the League of Social Justice and so on, pushing for Catholic action to evangelize and help the poor. The election of 1932 showed Catholic impact. With the rise of the so-called Social Gospel, Roosevelt found an ally and socially active Catholics found one too. Roosevelt signed into law a bill which said a person’s religious beliefs were private and people seeking teaching positions could not be asked their religious preference. Catholics became more active in government, getting positions of power. The Immigrant church was all but gone.


[1] {From:} Carroll, Father John, (1735-1815), first Roman Catholic bishop in America and founder of Georgetown College in 1789. He was a member of a Maryland family that held great political and economic power during the eighteenth century. Although the Carrolls were Catholic, they influenced an overwhelmingly hostile Anglican colony in Maryland. This great family included Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution. John Carroll was educated by Jesuit priests at Bohemian Manor, a famous plantation staffed by the Jesuit Order in northeastern Maryland. By the time he was sixteen, Carroll had resolved to pursue a religious vocation in the Jesuit community. With the blessings of his family he set sail for Flanders where he entered a Jesuit seminary and was ordained a priest by 1765. He spent the next eight years teaching and fulfilling his ministerial roles in Europe before returning to America.

After the Revolutionary War the Catholic population of less than fifty thousand still was centered in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. The Revolution had removed the humiliating penal legislation upon Catholics, but the community was not unified by the presence of a bishop. By 1790 many Catholics had immigrated from Europe to the United States and the Vatican realized that the growing Catholic community needed a native bishop. Without a bishop, some Catholic parishes practiced their own form of church government, hiring and firing priests at will. Carroll as superior could not stop the problem of trusteeism, as it became known. Pope Pius VI requested that Carroll become first bishop of his American flock. In 1790, Carroll was consecrated as bishop in England and Baltimore was proclaimed as the mother see of the diocese of America. Carroll remained bishop until his death in 1814.

Updated: February 7, 2008