Catholic exploration of North America

Reviewed By Thomas Rzeznik
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

When teaching U.S. history at the University of Notre Dame, historian Jay Dolan used to ask his students to identify the significance of three dates: 1607, 1608 and 1610. While a few would sometimes recognize 1607 as the founding of Jamestown, rarely did any know that 1608 was Quebec’s founding or that 1610 was Santa Fe’s. The French and Spanish simply didn’t register on their historical radars.   

Those who read Kevin Starr’s sweeping account of Catholic exploration and settlement in colonial North America will never share in that shortcoming. In “Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience,” Starr draws attention to the important role that Catholicism has played in the development of the vast territory that stretches from Newfoundland to Florida, Quebec to California. 

He reveals how Catholics sought to plant the faith in new lands and among new peoples, despite formidable challenges. He wants Catholics to regain a sense of pride in their own history, one that has deeper roots in North America’s soil than many recognize.

As the title of Starr’s book indicates, this is a story of unabashed Catholic ambition. In setting their gaze on the New World, Catholic powers sought to claim a continent and its peoples for the church. They dispatched explorers, missionaries and settlers to undertake the enterprise of evangelization and spiritual conquest. 

Their work was part of a global effort to spread Christian civilization to all corners of the world. Starr takes seriously the religious motivations of these actors, refusing to see them as merely a mask for more worldly aims. These were sacred expeditions intended to extend “Catholic culture and civilization into new regions,” Starr writes.

Best known for his multi-volume history of California, which tells the epic tale of that state’s influence and rise to prominence, Starr is captivated by those same qualities within colonial Catholicism. He revels in telling them. 

Given his previous work and expertise, it is not surprising that his finest chapters focus on Spanish settlement and missionary activity. But more than just recounting the familiar story of the recently canonized Junipero Serra and his chain of California missions, Starr draws attention to a more widespread Spanish presence that extended from Florida to present-day Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The French side of the story, in contrast, is more narrowly focused on Quebec (which may disappoint Chicago-area readers who wish to learn more about the exploration of the Great Lakes region and Mississippi River Valley).    

Drawing heavily on histories, chronicles and biographies produced by missionaries and their admirers, the story is largely told from their perspective. It is one of perseverance amid uncertainty, triumph over adversity. 

While not ignoring the tensions that flared between Europeans and native peoples — or the problem of forced Indian labor and sin of Catholic slave-owning — Starr wants to recognize Catholic achievement. Missionaries, in particular, are singled out for praise. They may not always have been saintly, but they promoted education, mastered languages, shared knowledge of architecture and engineering and offered pathways to salvation.  

Rich in detail, the information Starr presents can at times overwhelm. There is a lot to take in, especially for those less interested in the intricacies of colonial administration and church governance. It’s easy to lose track of individuals and their comings and goings. Names are plentiful, but few captivating personalities stand out. Still, Starr deserves credit for bringing together the vibrant stories of Catholic settlement in the Spanish, French and English colonies, each with its own distinct character and culture.  

In telling a three-fold tale, Starr helps us recognize the roots of North American Catholicism’s regional variations. His discussion of Spanish missionary activity, for instance, emphasizes the important process of inculturation that occurred. In these borderland regions, the mixing of European and native religious practices led to a Catholic culture distinctively different from the one found in French Canada, where the Catholic ethos was more guarded against outside influence.  

For their part, the French sought to protect their identity as a Catholic people by building up an institutional presence. Much of it was guided by the labors of women religious, who played a much stronger role in the French colonies than they did elsewhere in North America at this time. 

The English colonies, in contrast, saw Catholics struggle as a religious minority. The Catholic elite who settled in the Maryland sought to achieve the power and status denied them in England. They were also determined to protect the religious liberties that had been granted to them while contending with the very real challenges of religious diversity.   

How would these three distinct cultures come together? That’s a story Starr had planned to trace in subsequent volumes. Unfortunately, Starr’s untimely passing this past January means that his larger project will remain unfinished. But his completed volume encourages others to take up the work, just as those whose continental ambitions laid the foundation for Catholicism in North America passed the task onto others.