- Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789-1870
Southern and Civil War historians might be tempted to assume that the experience and work of French missionary priests can do little to illuminate their own scholarly preoccupations. They would be wrong. Fathers [End Page 553] on the Frontier offers a compelling portrait of how intelligent men managed to bend themselves to an accommodation with slavery, and it does so without resorting to anachronistic psychohistory, the pleasures of individual biography, or the device of sectional stereotyping. Instead, Michael Pasquier's monograph builds up a careful, nuanced study of the entwined institutional, political, and cultural dynamics that produced the infamous proslavery Catholic clergy in antebellum America. At the same time, the book quietly shatters the presumption that the South—and the American Southwest into which southerners migrated—was an Evangelical Protestant monolith. Finally, it renders visible an important and compelling strand in American Catholic history, expanding it beyond the traditional narrative tenuously rooted in colonial Maryland and long defined by the transformative immigrations of Irish and eastern and southern Europeans. Catholic history, like American history, cannot be reduced to a single storyline.
France had a long tradition of missionary activity in North America. Best known are the Jesuits, who fanned out from Quebec and down the Mississippi River valley in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but numerous other orders joined them in smaller numbers to catechize Indians and enslaved Africans. The cession of Canada to Britain and Louisiana to Spain in 1763, followed by the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1767, produced a hiatus in French male missionary activity in North America until the American and French Revolutions intersected to provide a new opening. With backing from the government of the young republic, John Carroll was appointed the first bishop of the American Catholic Church in 1784. The clerical suppression of the French Revolutionary regime produced refugee priests whom Carroll embraced to fill out the anemic ranks of his clergy, the first generation of the missionary wave that Pasquier documents. A vibrant religious revival with an ambitious missionary wing emerged in the wake of the rapprochement between church and state in France affected by the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801. In addition to restoring Catholicism to France, it set its sights on extending the blessings of the mother church to territories inhabited by "heretics." The largely Protestant United States fell into that category, and scores, perhaps hundreds, of missionary priests set off from the seminaries of France for the next seven decades determined to spread the true faith in North America.
In five deeply researched and thoughtfully crafted chapters, Pasquier traces the spiritual tradition and vocation that motivated the missionary priests and the institutional and political realities that required continual renegotiation of the nexus between belief and practice. Drawing artfully upon personal letters exchanged between missionary priests, Pasquier [End Page 554] reveals the struggles of these men to enact the public ideal of the priest as father and leader of his flock when they were privately plagued by the uncertainty, loneliness, hostility, and physical hardship they met in the missionary field. Separated from the culture and institutional framework of the French Catholic Church, the missionaries cultivated a transnational consciousness and political position that allied them more closely with Rome than was the case for their French colleagues, a dynamic that points as well to an early American Catholic Church less independent of Rome than previous scholarship has asserted. In tension with this transnational aspect was a constellation of powerful domestic exigencies. Pasquier meticulously mines both personal correspondence and institutional archives to reveal how the missionaries developed strategies to achieve acceptance by their American flocks that were driven by local and regional custom and politics, a practice that ultimately led them to act and argue against Pope Gregory XVI's 1839 antislavery proclamation, In Supremo Apostolatus.
Scholars and advanced students of American religious history will be both enlightened...