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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 764-765

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Book Review

The Frontiers and Catholic Identities


The Frontiers and Catholic Identities. Edited by Anne M. Butler, Michael E. Engh, S.J., and Thomas W. Spalding, C.F.X. [American Catholic Identities: A Documentary History.] (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. 1999. Pp. xxxii, 221. $25.00 paperback.)

Destined to become a classic, this collection of documents focuses on the pervasive influence of Roman Catholics in all areas of the American West. For the period 1785-1920, Catholic voices are retrieved and, by their placement [End Page 764] alongside appropriate others, are rendered meaningful. Consequently, this volume will appeal to Catholics, especially those with an interest in the West, and to readers desirous of broadening their understanding of western spiritual developments.

The three editors, all scholars of some aspect of the Catholic experience, each take one-third of the book. Michael Engh covers what he calls the "backwoods frontier" of Kentucky and the Old Northwest, with a particular emphasis on the Catholic diaspora from Maryland. Anne Butler fills in the next one-third, revealing conflicts between Catholics and such other religious groups as the Church of Latter-day Saints. Thomas Spalding completes the volume with contributions relating to the Pacific slope and the Southwest. Each editor enhances his or her section with well-footnoted introductions that alert readers to salient points in the documents, as well as suggesting their larger meanings.

The theme that binds the documents together is the development of Catholic identity in the West. The editors make it clear that this identity was diverse and often conflicted. Because German, Irish, and Hispanic Catholics did not share languages or cultures, they and other splinter groups found it difficult to negotiate just what type of Catholicism would be practiced in the West. At the same time, biting criticism came from outside the Church. In 1865, for example, two Protestant clergymen in Colorado belittled Catholics' use of "ugly dolls" and "miserable daubs which picture our Blessed Lord, the Virgin, and the Holy Family, the tin candle sticks, the tin glitter everywhere," as well as Catholic "ignorance," for these clergy claimed that "the majority had learned no law save what the priests taught them" (p. 73). Despite these and other difficulties, Catholics--ranging from priests and women Religious to lay people--persevered to make their church a religious force on all sorts of frontiers.

In addition to the sagacity of the documents selected, the book has other attractions. A detailed introductory essay by Thomas Engh puts Catholic scholarship in the context of western historiography. Besides illustrations throughout, a photographic essay, courtesy of Anne Butler, expands a reader's visual grasp of Catholics on western frontiers. An afterword by Thomas Spalding offers an overview, as well as two contemporary documents. At the very end is a list of suggested readings of the best and most recent scholarship regarding Catholics on frontiers.

Although more discussion of frontiers--for example, an explanation of what is meant by "persisting vestiges of the frontier today" (p. xxii)--would be useful to guide readers, the collection is a marvel; a mini-archives in itself. Throughout, it is clear that the editors invested enormous amounts of time, precision, and devotion. The result is a volume rich in complexity and wide-ranging in usefulness, one that authoritatively claims a place for Catholics in the history of the American West.


Glenda Riley
Ball State University



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