‘… there can be no understanding of American culture and history without an understanding of the role played by Catholic peoples in the unfolding drama of the American experience.’ – Kevin Starr
State librarian emeritus pens history of Catholics in America
January 9th, 2017
By Valerie Schmalz
“The history of Catholicism in America is not simply Catholic history. It is American history …” That statement from California state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr sets the direction of “Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience” (Ignatius Press, 2016).
“Previous studies have emphasized Catholic immigrants’ struggle for acceptance,” Starr writes in the preface of this first volume. Starr said it is time to reboot our perspective of Catholicism.
Catholics have lost sight of the historical fact that Catholics of many different ethnicities and nationalities played significant roles from the beginning, and were present on this continent well before any other group, with the exception of the Native Americans, Starr said in an interview with Catholic San Francisco.
A native San Franciscan who attended the now-shuttered St. Boniface School and is professor emeritus at University of Southern California, the 76-year-old Starr brings professional gravitas and faith to this latest book.
“I think you will find a lot of new things. We don’t think of the Catholic origins of Texas. I open up all of this because history is worth an end in itself,” Starr said, but also, “I think it is very important for us Catholics today in the United States as we face certain challenges to religious freedom, to faith – it is important for us to know we are not Johnny come latelies. We are part of a founding of Catholic culture. We need not apologize to anyone.”
Spanish explorers founded St. Augustine in 1565 in Florida a half century before the English landed at Jamestown, and before them the Viking explorers were Catholics, as were many of the Irish sailors on their boats, Starr said. French Catholics founded St. Louis and New Orleans, the Spaniards California and the Southwest. Lord Calvert was granted a charter to the colony of Maryland from the English king with equal rights for Anglicans and Catholics, while German Catholics settled southern Pennsylvania. All before 1776.
“This volume is intended to be the first part of a larger narrative written at a time of crisis and renewal,” Starr wrote. “… there can be no understanding of American culture and history without an understanding of the role played by Catholic peoples in the unfolding drama of the American experience,” writes Starr.
“Behind this book is some 20 years of intermittent research while I was doing other books,” Starr said in the interview with Catholic San Francisco. “This is not a booster book. It’s a history book. Sometimes Catholic civilization did well, sometimes not so well,” Starr said.
The project was inspired by John Gilmary Shea, a “pioneering” and “great Catholic historian” who wrote a four volume work in the 19th century, Starr said.
“The Catholic Church is the oldest organization in the United States, and the only one that has retained the same life and polity and forms through each succeeding age. Her history is interwoven in the whole fabric of the country’s annals,” Shea wrote in the first volume, published in 1886, “The Catholic History in Colonial Days,” Starr notes in the preface to his first volume.
“Few, if any contemporary historians of American Catholicism would open a similar history with the same confidence,” Starr writes in the preface. “Still, everything that Shea claimed of the Catholic Church in her American context remains true.”
“We are an immigrant church and we glory in that,” Starr said in the interview, “but the immigration began a thousand years ago.”
From January 12, 2017 issue of Catholic San Francisco.