- Frontiers of Faith: Bringing Catholicism to the West in the Early Republic
Relying on documents from Catholic priests and bishops, John Dichtl argues that in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Maryland to the far edge of Indiana, and especially in Kentucky from the 1780s through the 1820s, Catholics initially lived in harmony with their non-Catholic neighbors. As explored in the first two chapters, Catholic leaders, such as Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, encouraged such cordial relations. As a result, frontier priests not only performed sacramental duties but also bought and sold land, fostered businesses, engaged in politics, and started schools, all the while attempting to interact with non-Catholics as pleasantly as possible. Although the Catholic laity did not always see eye to eye with their priests, especially when priestly salaries were at stake, Catholics in general soon came to rely on priests for demonstrating how to survive as a religious minority.
At the same time some priests proved to be inept, misguided, and/or combative, as discussed in chapter 3. Since priest misbehavior threatened to stir latent anti-Catholic sentiment, Catholic authorities learned to downplay internal dissension and to handle public embarrassments as quickly and quietly as [End Page 636] possible. Suppressing scandals in this fashion ultimately led to the implementation of European forms of church governance, which ironically alienated the previously appeased non-Catholic community.
While priests served as the focal point for Catholic-Protestant relations, Catholic churches and Catholic goods also provided another means of contact, as explored in chapter 4. Non-Catholics in fact often contributed to the construction of Catholic churches (although Catholics did not return the favor, as Catholics had deemed such contact to be too dangerous). Religious clothing, candles, books, paintings, and statues consequently proved to be a means to display to curious outsiders what Catholics believed. Such displays pointed, in part, toward Europe, which was where most of these religious objects were produced.
Chapter 5 illustrates how priests often feared interaction of Catholics with non-Catholics. What specifically concerned many priests was the fact that the frontier generated numerous opportunities for conversion both to and from the Catholic faith. The actual number of converts was small, even though a myriad of questions, including inquiries about money lending to non- Catholics, serving meat to non-Catholics, baptizing slaves of non-Catholics, and mixed marriages were routinely raised by frontier priests seeking answers from Rome.
Catholics eventually dared to express the distinctiveness of their faith, as is illustrated in chapter 6. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, Catholic schools proliferated, public processions increased, and priests took to the podium both to preach the word of God in the Roman Catholic fashion and to defend the faith when under assault. Sometimes these priests were warmly received. On other occasions they were not. Regardless, Dichtl concludes that by the close of the frontier period cautious optimism had given way to a more a confident declaration of what it meant to be Catholic. In other words, the frontier may have initially allied Catholics with non- Catholics, but a number of factors necessitated traditional European responses, which ultimately alienated Catholics from their neighbors, as was graphically illustrated in the resurgence of anti-Catholicism in the 1830s.
Had Dichtl’s material been better arranged (more consistently following chronological order within each chapter, for example), his arguments would have been more clear and convincing, especially with regard to his contention that the congeniality of the American Catholic frontier was eventually supplanted by the imposition of European standards. Dichtl nonetheless certainly does provide some sterling insight into the frontier Church, especially concerning the impact of aberrant priests and the power of Catholic goods. [End Page 637]