The Southern (Catholic) Tradition

When asked why he was a Catholic, Southern author Walker Percy liked to provocatively respond, “What else is there?” Savannah-born writer Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic or Irish heritage, once asserted that she was a “hillbilly Thomist,” a nod to Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologiae she piously read. Percy and O’Connor certainly saw no conflict between their Southern identity and their Catholic faith. The second volume of historian and seventh-generation Californian Kevin Starr’s history of Catholicism in the Americas, Continental Achievement: Roman Catholics in the United States, recently and posthumously published (Starr died in 2017), shows the deep roots of Catholic Southern identity.

As Starr explains in his first volume, Continental Ambitions, the colony of Maryland served as refuge of religious freedom, including for Catholics, such as the colony’s most illustrious family, the Calverts. Yet even then the Catholic population of early colonial Maryland was never more than ten percent, and a Protestant-dominated Maryland General Assembly in 1704 explicitly forbade celebration of Catholic sacraments and limited civic participation for Catholic residents. Nevertheless, Catholicism slowly grew in Maryland and other Southern colonies.

In many respects the Revolutionary War served as a catalyst for strengthening Catholic and Protestant bonds across the colonies, including in the South. The sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, hailed from Maryland, and served as the state’s first senator. His cousin Daniel Carroll, also of Maryland, was one of only two Catholics to sign the Constitution (the other, Thomas Fitzsimons, was from Pennsylvania).

Catholics also played a vital role in the fight against the British. In 1777, Congress named Polish Catholic nobleman Casimir Pulaski as brigadier general of cavalry in the Continental Army. Pulaski would ultimately die during a 1779 attempt to retake Savannah from the British; his last words were “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Hungarian Catholic Michael Kovats de Fabriczy, another cavalry officer in the Continental Army, died during the 1779 siege of Charleston.

Polish Catholic nobleman Tadeusz Kościuszko in turn designed and oversaw the construction of defenses of West Point, was named a brigadier general, and authored the first military manual adopted by the U.S. Army, which remained in use through the Mexican-American War. Kościuszko also developed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson — after the war, when the Polish nobleman returned to Europe, he requested Jefferson liquidate his American assets and use the money to “purchase freedom for slaves and pay for their education” writes Starr.

A military expedition led by George Rogers Clark persuaded French Catholics living in present-day Indiana to swear allegiance to the Revolutionary Virginia government. The colonial protection of the city of Richmond was for a time led by French Catholic the Marquis de Lafayette. Irish Catholic and Colonel John Fitzgerald, an aide-de-camp to General George Washington, distinguished himself at multiple battles, and was wounded at Monmouth in 1778. After the war he maintained his home in Alexandria, Virginia, as a “Mass House” for Catholics.

The Continental Congress and Army were ultimately reliant on two other Catholic nations, France and Spain, for final victory against the British. At the siege of Yorktown that forced British General Cornwallis’ surrender, 24,000 French soldiers and seamen supported 7,500 American soldiers. Indeed, the greatest naval battle of the entire war, the Battle of the Chesapeake, (or Virginia Capes), fought between French and British navies during the Yorktown campaign, with no American naval contribution. That same Yorktown  campaign was also supported by a half million silver pesos provided by the Spanish Empire.

Washington and his family were great friends to many Catholics, including several Virginia landowners. Our nation’s first president also hired Irish Catholics to work his Mount Vernon estate, which helps explain nearby Alexandria’s proud and venerable Irish Catholic heritage. Another Washington friend, Maryland Catholic Thomas Attwood Digges, was a Revolutionary spy, who published a novel based on his early life, Adventures of Alonso (1775). The book, Starr notes, is considered by some literary historians as the first published novel written by a native-born American. The “Southern Catholic writer” apparently has quite an ancient pedigree!

Baltimore in turn became the first metropolitan see in the United States, and was the location of the young nation’s first cathedral. The city also became a hub for a diverse Catholic culture that blended English, French, Irish and free blacks. Indeed, by the Civil War, the city had twelve times as many free blacks as enslaved. So much for simplistic narratives from the likes of the 1619 Project about how the society and economy of antebellum South was thoroughly racist and entirely reliant on slave labor! Indeed, in 1829, an all-black sisterhood, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, was founded to minister to the city’s free black Catholic community.

Maryland meanwhile witnessed the first sisterhood to be founded in the United States, by Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809. French-born priest John Dubois, who founded Mt. Saint Mary’s Seminary (also in Emmitsburg), was at one time taught by Virginia governor Patrick Henry. The famous Virginia politician even secured the Catholic cleric permission to celebrate Mass in the Richmond capitol “as part of a state program underscoring religious equality and freedom,” explains Starr.

The Catholic population in the early Republic was actually majority Southern. Consider the age of Dixie’s oldest Catholic parishes. St. Mary’s in Charleston was built in 1791. St. Mary’s in Alexandria, Virginia, was built in 1795. The oldest Catholic church in Georgia was erected in 1801. Priests in these decades lived or regularly visited Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah and Locust Grove, Georgia. Though Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was built in 1718 when Louisiana was a French colony, it was used by the local bishop to host War of 1812 hero Andrew Jackson after his famous defeat of the British. The square in front of the church is now named in Jackson’s honor.

Though this goes beyond the scope of Starr’s book, which ends prematurely because of his untimely death, Catholicism became a prominent feature of the antebellum South. French-born Catholic Eligius Fromentin served as one of Louisiana’s senators from 1813-1819. Roger Brooke Taney of Maryland was the first Catholic appointed to the Supreme Court in 1836. Catholic William Gaston was elevated to North Carolina’s highest court in 1833. By 1860, every town in the Middle and Deep South with a population of more than 2,100 (about 40 municipalities) had at least one Catholic church. Kentucky, notes Starr, became more Catholic than Maryland. A Dominican school in the state educated and almost converted the young high-church Episcopalian Jefferson Davis. The Kentucky-based Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross (later renamed) Sisters of Loretto, was an order of black nuns founded in 1812.

This trend continued into the Civil War. Edmund Ruffin, the eccentric Virginia farmer who fired the first shot on Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, was an adult convert to Catholicism. Among prominent Catholic Confederates were General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, General James Longstreet, General William Hardee, and Admiral Rafael Semmes. About 40,000 Irish Catholics served in the Confederate Army. A Catholic served on Jefferson Davis’s cabinet.

Given this diverse heritage, it is perhaps less surprising that the South would be the origin of so many prominent Catholic and Catholic convert writers in the twentieth century. This list includes not only Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, but Alan Tate, Caroline Gordon, Brainard Cheney, and John Martin Finlay. It is to the praise of the predominantly Protestant South that such a rich Catholic literary heritage could develop and flourish. Writes O’Connor:

The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.

This is part of the South’s charm — an ability to recognize the good, true, and beautiful in traditions other than its principally Protestant identity and heritage. Perhaps it will never be the case that one will hear the maxim “As Southern as Catholicism.” But Starr’s excellent history makes at least this much clear: American Catholic identity is deeply Southern

You might also enjoy these articles...