Travel in Time: American Catholicism Through History

If you're like me, you enjoy visiting sites of significance. Historic landmarks that have held meaning since their creation, religious sites that hold importance not only for myself but for the millions of people who have visited their altars, passed through their doors, and knelt beneath the stained glass windows.

These places of faith are highly sought after pilgrimage destinations for more than one reason; they continue to hold the enrapturing, all-encompassing focus of faith and they, almost single-handedly in some areas, formed the face of the United States and molded the First Amendment. So, let's take a look at the educational, Catholic faith-based and historic destinations across the U.S. by traveling through time, shall we?

The original 13 colonies had an extremely low percentage of Catholics, only about 0.6% in 1785. However, Catholicism actually came to the U.S. before the pilgrims and even before the Protestant Reformation. For centuries Spanish explorers like Ponce de Leon had been trudging through what is now Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and the southwest. The first recorded Catholic Mass was held in 1526 at the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Gualdape though the colony was abandoned after only three months due to the winter weather. It wasn't until recently canonized Saint Junipero Serra founded the Alta California missions that Catholicism in the New World solidified and took hold in the native people and western settlers, forever changing the face of the West Coast.

The Alta California missions, from 1769 and onward, were political, social, economic as well as religious centers of power in a land governed by Spanish and Portuguese militaries. St. Serra's influence in California converted thousands of Native Americans and changed the community structure of California. His work directly correlates to the founding of the city of San Diego among others.

You can, on a trip to San Diego, visit Old Town San Diego, the formative birthplace of the city and the first founded in the state, as well as the mission San Diego de Alcalá, one of the first established by Junipero Serra. The church still stands, performs weekly Mass and is open to the visiting public. Visiting an Alta California mission is highly recommended not only for practicing Catholics but for anyone interested in learning the history of California, fascinated by experiencing the age and structure of something that affected millions of lives over several centuries, and something that remains a symbol of peace and prosperity. Other Spanish missions include the ever famous Alamo and those in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park as well as the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, built around 1610, and claimed to be the oldest standing church in the United States.

The French had their hand in the mix as well. As early as the late 17th century, the French claimed territory along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast up to what was considered Illinois Country and into Canada, reaching from Louisiana to Quebec. As history goes, however, the French missionaries, though they did build churches and held Mass, were not as zealous or ambitious as the Spanish missionaries and did not push for huge conversions in their territories. They did, however, create gorgeous churches that one must visit such as the stunning St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, a picturesque fairy tale-like construction opened in 1794.

When we finally make our way back to the British colonies we see, finally, a predominantly Catholic province in Maryland.

  • Side Note: As you may remember form your history lessons, the English split from the Catholic Church with King Henry VIII after he struggled to obtain permission from the Pope to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. His schism created the Church of England, placed the monarch as the head, and created centuries of turmoil and religious persecution throughout every British country and territory. This persecution and anti-Catholic prejudice followed to the Americas and Catholics (or any non-Puritan) were seen as suspect and were likely not tolerated.

So this is where Maryland comes in. This new colony was relatively tolerant compared to its sister colonies and even instituted the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649 instituting laws of religious tolerance, a precursor to the First Amendment.

By the American Revolution, roughly 1.2% of the 2.5 million colonists were Catholic and were under the bishop of London. Wanting freedom in more ways than one, Maryland sent a petition to Pope Pius VI and soon after that Father John Carroll was named the first Superior in the U.S. and the first official Diocese in Baltimore was instituted November 1789.

This is where you will find the oldest Catholic cathedral in the political United States (there are older cathedrals but they weren't in the established colonies), the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (AKA Baltimore Basilica). This absolutely spectacular cathedral was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the father of the modern American architectural profession and personal friend of Thomas Jefferson. The Basilica was one of the first churches built after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and was more than a symbol of religious freedom but also personal freedom, civil liberty, and a memorial to spirit and faith.

When immigrants started arriving in America, drawn by promises of religious freedom and the like, Catholicism tripled and became the largest Christian faith in the nation. Where 1785 saw roughly 25,000 Catholics, 1850 saw 1.6 million growing to 12 million at the close of the century. Predominantly Catholic countries like Italy, Ireland, and those in Eastern Europe were migrating to the New World, ballooning the Catholic population and causing a greater need for churches. Communities took on a religious identity as well as a multicultural charm, building churches and cathedrals with international style and feeding into the Catholic precept of universality and tradition. In Washington, D.C. you'll find the largest cathedral in the country, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, designed to hold 10,000 worshipers and maintaining 70 chapels and sacred images. This church was created to be a national image for the Church, holding statues and sacred relics from the patron saints from every state including St. Junipero Serra from California.

Other Catholic churches to visit include St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, a beautiful and historic neo-Gothic landmark on 5th Avenue; the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis with its intensely beautiful and poignant golden mosaics stretching across the ceilings, columns, and magnificent dome; and Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, St. Junipero Serra's headquarters for the Alta California Missions, located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.