Reflection from Fr. Joseph
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, it’s a good time to look back at the founding of our country and the essential role that Catholicism had in our nation’s early years.
The first Catholic Mass in America was held in the Spanish Mission of Florida in 1526. Since the Spaniards and French were significantly more Catholic than the British, the territories they colonized brought our Catholic Faith well before the Thirteen Colonies. Already there were Franciscan missions in California by the 1760s, while Catholicism came into French Canada in the late 1600s (which included parts of modern-day America such as Michigan and New Orleans).
Among the Thirteen Colonies, Catholicism was centered in Maryland. The first Mass in the colonies was celebrated by Fr. Andrew White in 1634. Shortly thereafter, the Jesuits set up missions in southern Maryland along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, christening St. Mary’s City as the capital of the new Catholic colony. Ostensibly, Maryland was named after the British Queen Henrietta Maria – but that was the “official story” told to placate the Protestant king of England who granted the land charter. In fact, Maryland was actually named after Our Lady: Mary’s Land.
Maryland was the only Catholic colony – there were penal laws throughout much of the rest of the 13, which prevented Catholics from owning property, voting, or building churches or schools (although Pennsylvania was also pretty lenient toward Catholics). But Maryland was the primary place for Catholics to settle – founded by Catholics who were exiled from Great Britain (including the family of John Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence). Maryland was also the only colony to pass a law officially tolerating every faith – from which our Declaration would take its “freedom of worship” inspiration.
Meanwhile, back in New England, the settlers were preparing to share a feast of Thanksgiving with their Native American neighbors, through the help of a man who was probably himself a Catholic – Squanto, the Patuxet man who served as an intermediary between the Pilgrims and the Natives. Squanto had been sadly captured by the British on an earlier expedition and brought to Spain to be sold into slavery, but was rescued by Franciscan monks in Spain, who freed him and gave him an education in the Catholic Faith. It is said that he believed and brought his faith back with him to the New World. On his deathbed, Squanto asked “the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven” (as recorded by Governor Bradford, who became close friends with Squanto).
From the very beginning of our nation, Catholicism has graced our land with its rich blessings and traditions. Since the word “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving”, then truly every Mass is a celebration of one of our most treasured holidays!