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Encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic History by Matthew Bunson, Margaret Bunson (review)

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 105-108 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Matthew Bunson, assisted by his mother, the late Margaret Bunson, has compiled several popular reference works, including The Encyclopedia of Catholic History (1995) and The Encyclopedia of Saints (1998). To this list, he has recently added the Encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic History, intended for the “general Catholic layperson,” yet “researched in a scholarly and exhaustive fashion” (8). The author aims to treat the “whole of the Catholic story in the United States, from the earliest travels of the Spanish and French missionaries to the Church in the new millennium” (8).

The work includes an impressive array of entries—most devoted to significant persons, 200+ dioceses and former dioceses, religious communities and orders, and the Church in each of the fifty states. It includes some interesting figures that others might have omitted, including actress Grace Kelly; Confederate Civil War general Pierre Beauregard; Korean War chaplain Emil Kapaun; movie director Alfred Hithcock; and labor activist Leonora Barry. Bunson includes entries on modern popes reigning since the 1780s, Pius VI to Benedict XVI, highlighting their chief contributions and influence on the United States.

Essays addressing significant themes and movements appear less frequently. Entries explain anti-Catholicism, trusteeism, slavery, and modernism, for instance, but no identifiable contributions discuss the liturgical movement, racism, the contraception debate, ecumenism, or women religious (aside from histories of particular communities). The volume begins with a ten-page chronology of key events in U.S. Catholic history (1492–2011) and concludes with names of missionaries to America with brief annotations for each; a record of saints, blesseds, and venerables from the Americas; Catholics in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall; and finally, a list of cathedrals, basilicas, and shrines in the U.S.

The encyclopedia achieves a great degree of breadth, representing significant persons, localities, institutions, and organizations, but understandably little depth. The work contains many brief entries, a few surprisingly short. The Catholic Worker Movement’s entry is confined to 180 words, but separate entries describe its founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The St. Vincent de Paul Society’s contributions are addressed in about 450 words, while the influential Jesuit-weekly, America, is described in 200 words. But one may sympathize for the compiler, determining which topics deserve more comprehensive treatment. Multi-page entries address topics including Catholic education, Eastern Catholic Churches, Holy See-U.S. relations, Native American Catholics, separation of Church and state, and Spanish missions, as examples.

Compared to reference volumes setting a high standard for usability, the work lacks an index and a detailed table of contents. Consequently, the user must to look up various terms in the body of the text to locate an entry. For instance, no entry for “Hispanic Catholics” is found, but the text directs the reader to one on “Latino Catholics.” “Royal patronage” during the Spanish mission period is found under “Patronato Real.” Some significant topics are addressed within other entries, and the reader is directed to the appropriate listing. For instance, the Polish National Catholic Church is described within the entry on Polish Catholics, but only a few sentences are devoted to its formation.

Reference works, regardless of the intended audience, must demonstrate credibility and authority. Works of such breadth as Bunson’s normally engage a large cohort of credentialed scholars to contribute entries and larger essays on subjects related to their expertise. Contributors are named, and a short bibliography appears with each entry assuring the user that content is drawn from the best and up-to-date scholarship. However, the Bunsons alone apparently compiled all the encyclopedia’s entries, omitting bibliographic information. The volume’s credibility, then, rests solely on the reputation of the compilers and publisher.

For scholarly use, Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley’s The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (1997) still holds pride of place. With contributions from hundreds of scholars, its entries conclude with a brief bibliography. Now fifteen years since the work was published, Bunson’s encyclopedia has the advantage of providing updated entries and new subjects not explored previously. Far from simply copying the entry list of previously published reference works on U.S. Catholicism, the compiler considered which topics might address the history of the Church in...

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