Catholic Church has an extensive history of missions in the U.S.

IMAGE: Nancy Wiechec

By Chaz Muth

(CNS) — There is an extensive history of Catholic missions in the U.S.

the original 13 British colonies in what is now the U.S. largely had Protestant
populations, Catholic missionaries helped shape the economic, political and
religious values as other parts of the territory were settled.

orders began to establish missions in Spanish Florida as early as the 16th
century as a way of attracting members of Native American tribes to

founded missions in other parts of the South, the Jesuits began setting up theirs
in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions in the 17th century, and
Franciscans began building theirs in California in the 18th century.

American missionaries came into full focus last year when Pope Francis
canonized St. Junipero Serra, the Spanish
Franciscan who established nine of California’s 21 missions.

Many Catholic scholars consider St. Junipero
and other North American missionaries — such as Jesuit Father Jacques
Marquette — to be founding fathers in U.S. history, nearly as much as George
Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

“While our nation state did
emerge in a particular place, our continent has a complex and deep history, one
that is as Hispanic and Catholic as it is Anglo and Protestant,” said
Steven Hackel, a professor at the University of California Riverside and author
of “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father.”

Like the U.S. Catholic home mission
dioceses in the 21st century, the primary responsibility of the early American
missionaries was to bring their religion to the inhabitants of the land.

By the time the Jesuits began to
make their settlements in the Great Lakes region, they believed that humanity
was all one and that the original revelation was God had been delivered to
everyone on earth, but somehow the message had gotten lost, muddled or confused
by many, said Tracy Leavelle, an associate professor at Jesuit-run Creighton University in
Omaha, Nebraska, and author of “The Catholic
Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America.”

they looked for what they called ‘natural religion’ in native peoples, the
vestiges of that original revelation,” Leavelle told Catholic News Service.
“They thought that was something they could work with. So, they were
bringing them back to God after they had been lost. I mean, that was their view
of what they were doing.”

rivers and mountains throughout California can trace their names to St. Junipero, the missionaries and the missions, many of which are
still active churches.

San Gabriel Mission is considered
the mother church of Los Angeles, home of the largest Catholic archdiocese in
the country in terms of Catholic population.

only did the missionaries in these missions bring new religious practices to
the native population, they also introduced them to agricultural, economic and
political practices, Hackel said.

Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero
last September, he said a missionary’s
life is exciting and brings joy and that sharing the Gospel is the way to keep
experiencing the joy it brings and keeps the heart “from growing numb from
being anesthetized.”

Catholics in the U.S. and other
parts of the world are indebted to St. Junipero and thousands of other
witnesses who lived their faith and passed it on, the pope said during the
canonization Mass in Washington.

The pope acknowledged that some
people objected to his sainthood cause because of questions about how then-Father
Serra had treated the native peoples of California and about the impact Spanish
colonization had on the aboriginals throughout the Americas.

Some groups objected to the
canonization because they said the missionaries eradicated the culture of the indigenous
people they encountered.

“Mission is never the fruit of
a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual,” Pope Francis
said. “Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be
found and healed, encountered and forgiven.”

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Chaz Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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