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Catholics Were Here First

Catholics begin it; Protestants end it.

September 25, 2023  0


I'm coming to you from our Fall Retreat at Sea, where our theme is "Catholics were here first" — meaning the New World — specifically, the lands that eventually became the United States.

However, despite the arrival of both Spanish and French Catholic explorers at roughly the same time, it was the British Protestants that prevailed in overrunning the eastern seaboard and eventually the continent. Why?

Catholics were here almost 100 years earlier, so you'd think that with a gigantic head start like that the Protestants wouldn't have stood a chance. The answer lies in the history of the circumstances.

Catholics were here almost 100 years earlier.

Catholic explorers were mostly not interested in establishing colonies but rather in enriching the coffers of their respective monarchies and wealthy merchants who had invested in their explorations.

On the other hand, the Protestants were not as much interested in the potential wealth but in establishing colonies where they could escape what they saw as religious persecution.

The Catholic explorers came here to get rich. The Protestants came here to start a new life.

With the exception of the Irish, who were persecuted violently by the British realm, there were no other Catholic populations looking to escape tyranny — at the time, at least. There were a smattering of Catholic settlements here and there, most notably St. Augustine in Florida, but these were far apart and few in between.

Additionally, the Catholic explorers brought with them missionaries who brought the gospel to the New World, and their efforts were concentrated on converting the native populations — not building settlements for migrants from Europe.

Further, many of the New World territories that Catholic explorers encountered were in Florida and further south — the Caribbean islands, Mexico and even South America. All of that was thanks to the Spanish. 

With the exception of the very Deep South — Lousiana, most notably — the French largely confined their expeditions to the north and lands in modern-day Canada as well as the northern remote parts of the present-day United States (Maine, for example). It was for this reason that the French and British fought so much in the disputed territories and gave way to famous battles and wars.

That was from the mid-to-late 1500s until the mid-1700s and set the stage for major military clashes down the road with the British colonists. The British colonists were not a force, so to speak, in the South — certainly not to the same degree and, as a result, had far fewer skirmishes with the Spanish.

So a large swath of North America was "Catholic," a hundred years before the British even largely knew about the New World.

Likewise, even when some earlier 16th-century British explorations did happen, they were largely in search of the famed Northwest Passage, a route they were certain would go across the continent and emerge in the Pacific. For the record, it was not discovered until the early 20th century, but it passes through the Arctic Circle.

The French and British explorations then were centered on commerce, and their efforts were concentrated in the northern regions of the continent. The Spanish had the same motivations but focused their efforts on the southern regions and even further south.

Establishing settlements and colonies was not the priority; there hadn't been a driving need. After all, why would citizens in Europe feel a need to give up the relative comfort and peace they enjoyed at home and hop on a ship to sail across the ocean and face danger and uncertainty without a major motivator?

For the time, the desire for wealth and return on investment would have to suffice. And so it did for roughly a century from the time Columbus landed. However, religious strife in England produced the needed motivation, and in 1620, about 100 passengers and 30 crew jumped on the Mayflower. A good number died on the voyage, and those who survived and landed in Plymouth still had to face the winter.

By the time winter had passed, that first group of about 130 had dwindled to barely 50 owing to starvation and disease. It was a very inauspicious beginning.

It was not the first colony established by the English; that was Jamestown in 1607. But it was the first that rejected the Church of England, which was way too Catholic for these Pilgrims.

Both rejected the pope and the authority of the Church.

So the important part to note is that there were two types (or categories) of English settlements in the New England area, and both rejected the pope and the authority of the Church.

But one group, the Puritans — who settled in Massachusetts Bay a handful of years later and who were OK with the Church of England — wanted it to be purified of Catholic remnants. Hence the name "Puritans."

The other group, the Pilgrims, wanted nothing to do with the established English church and set off to forge their own worship. They eventually transformed into Congregationalists. As the so-called Reformation barely turned 100, it was the beginning of a very uneasy relationship among Protestants in the New World.

What it would mean for Catholics coming here, however, would eventually prove to be tragic.

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