Skip to content

The Angels of Missouri Part II

The history of Missouri seems blessed with a positive Catholic intention. The fertile floodplains demonstrate the past course of the Missouri River and are blessed by the bluffs that rise in the distance that stand as sentinels and contain it.  So blessed is the course of the Missouri River that even as I write, in the town of Gower, Missouri near the city of St. Joseph, they have discovered the incorrupt body of a Benedictine Sister, Wilhelmina Lancaster, the founder of the Queen of Apostles monastery that died in 2019. One of the indicators of sanctity is that the body is not subject to decomposition as a witness to sanctity. There are not too many examples of incorruptible bodies of saints in the world, perhaps 100 and Missouri has provided such a daughter. Click here for more information.

The binding effects of Missouri Catholic history in American Catholic history continue to heavily occupy my time. In Part I I suggested that national histories have angels and are spiritually bound. Since angels are in the domain of light, then a further metaphor for American Catholic history is the visible spectrum of colors. Recall that the visible spectrum consists of primary colors: Red, Blue, Yellow.  These three primary colors are defined by the relationship of the Church to the colonial political power. Thes are the Churches whose institutional framework and architecture is determined by the relationship to power. It is the Church of bishops, kings and religious orders. These are the concessional Church (England), confessional Church (France) and conquestional Church (Spain). There are also three secondary colors which are a blend of sorts and are discussed as well. My objective is to showcase American Catholic historical in a mnemonic metaphor so that it can be retained and remembered. This is a history of impressions and as such are meant to be illustrative but nonetheless sufficiently valid.

The concessional Church describes the Church under English political dominion in America. Catholicism in the American colonies is unique and largely reserved to Maryland and its foundation. This Church physically began with the landing of the ships The Ark and The Dove in 1634. Although very small populations can be found peppered throughout the colonies, Maryland was specifically secured by Lord Baltimore to be a colony for Catholics to practice their faith. Recall that Catholics were being persecuted in England and were not necessarily welcomed. At different periods during colonial history, it was persecuted in Maryland or harassed by their Virginian neighbors. In different periods, priests were arrested and sent in chains back to England; Catholic property was seized; taxes aimed at Catholics were implemented; baptisms restricted. The Catholic Church was often forced to concede rights and privileges or concede faith. This concessional Church is an inheritance that tends to minimize points of disagreement and find pastoral commonalities to coexist. Yet even after concession it still remains in a none-the-less hostile environment despite the concessional posture. It is the Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, the patroness of England.

The confessional Church describes the Church under French political dominion. When France stabilized after its own religious wars around 1600, the Catholic faith was free to extend the missions from Quebec under royal patronage and spread through New France primarily through the Jesuits. The Jesuits or “black robes” were a primary institution for evangelization in America in the early confessional Church. Other orders followed depending on the needs as agreed between the Church and the King. The Franciscan Recollects also arrived early in colonial history and later joined by Salesians, Vincentians, Ursulines and others that served to spread the faith largely to the native Americans but later became integrated into the national Church administration as America spread westward. The confessional Church is a Church that is free to confess and mixes unapologetically with whoever they meet (even today). It is the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption to whom Louis XIII consecrated France.

The conquestional (Conquista) Church describes the Church under Spanish political dominion. The use of the word conquestional to complete the alliterative scheme of these primary Churches but also call into question many of the practices wrongly associated with the Church. From the U.S. perspective it is the least understood but from the Latin American perspective, it is the result of the Spanish Empire. Its Imperial nature represented in the coat of arms as it appears on the Cathedral in Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic.

Habsburg imperial eagle on the Cathedral in Santo Domingo

It is the Church of the Holy Roman Empire.  It is in fact a Church that is strongly institutional represented in the establishment of great religious houses in early colonial history. This Church brought the baroque to America; intricate in architecture, art, and music.  It is a Church that established a cohesive structure that relied more on reformist orders like the Dominicans, Jesuits, Discalced Carmelites, and Franciscans. It is the Church of Our Lady of Victory.

All these Churches meet in Missouri in a special way and perhaps these primary ecclesial colors are best exemplified by the celebration of Three Flags Day in St. Louis. This is one of those odd celebrations of history that are poignant and necessary.

Although the Louisiana Purchase had technically taken place in April 1803 and New Orleans had already been handed over to the Americans in December 1803 by the time Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis in December, they camped on the east side of the Mississippi because the news had not yet quite been officially conveyed to the Spanish. To respect the Spanish Crown (who governed French Louisiana since 1763 when the French secretly handed over their governance to Spain and avoid them being contested by the British) Jefferson had the Expedition of Discovery (Lewis and Clark) wait until March 1804 before crossing the Mississippi.

On March 9, 1804, the Spanish lowered their flag and raised the French flag conceding Louisiana to the French again. Then on March 10, 1804, 24 hours later, a second ceremony took place. The French lowered their flag and the U.S. raised theirs and so formally the lands west of the Mississippi were annexed; at least near the spot where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi in St. Louis. This ceremony represents the meeting of the concessional, confessional and conquestional Church and their blending and expansion westward.

As political power is secured in the territories and economic opportunities open up with commerce, new colors blend from the palette. These secondary colors, like the greens and oranges and purples of the visible spectrum can also be classified and they are also represented in Missouri. These secondary colors are the Churches of peoples. They represent nations and ethnic groups and individual faithful that respond to the evangelical mission of the Church is special ways.

After the Louisiana Purchase and as the nation moved ever westward providing the impulse forward, other Catholics came to the U.S. and contributed to the progress and evolution of the Catholic faith as a whole in America, The Irish and the Germans followed and built communities centered around their national Churches and often these Churches are quite marvelous in their stature and evocative of their origin. We saw examples of these Irish Churches such as the old Church in Armagh and St. Ignatius Loyola in Concord Hill or the German Churches along the Missouri like St. Francis Borgia in Washington, MO or St. Vincent’s in Warrenton, MO or the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Rhineland, MO. The contribution made affirms the Church in America. These three churches are grouped as follows: the Church of confluence (or immigrant Church), the Church of conversion or mission and the Church of conception.

The Church of confluence floated on keelboats and churned on steamboats and brought their own devotions, saints, struggles and tales. They largely came from Europe after the United States was formed and maintained their national identities as they were admitted into the United States and formed tight Catholic communities often with social purpose to support them in settling. These communities had connections with their own national institutions which often provided priests that served them. For many of these communities, emigration was an opportunity to enjoy the freedoms provided by the religious freedoms and economic opportunities of the United States and potentially flourish rather than languish in oppressive environments. These immigrant Churches in Missouri came from entry ports like Philadelphia or Boston or New York which served as staging grounds for further migration west. The great institutions in U.S. Catholic history often set up their headquarters in Baltimore or Philadelphia and spread from these evangelical centers. German Catholics arrived in Missouri around 1830; the Irish came in numbers in the 1840s. Czechs and Polish Catholics joined later.  There are some wonderful Churches along the Missouri River that give a wonderful testimony of their faith. At times it seems the bluffs of the Missouri are the Lorelei of the Rhineland or the hills of County Galway. Both groups encounter not only fertile fields but fertile grounds of freedom to establish their faith and build testimonies of faith in their beautiful Churches despite untold hardships. This Church brings with it dozens of representations of the Blessed Mother. Our Lady of Sorrows or Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Mariazell. One only needs to go to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. and walk along the altars to Our Blessed Mother to see the splendor and diversity in the nations she represents. Navigate the altars to Our Blessed Mother here.

The Church of conversion is the Church of mission. It is in a way, the most difficult to understand and reconcile as it is a Church of historical contradiction and it is subject to many prefixes that modify the spiritual context. The term is chosen to suggest evangelization and is used to contrast with the immigrant Church. Though there are wonderful examples of truly heroic missionaries, the Church of mission in the U.S. often comes into conflict with prevailing political powers. The mission Churches initially represent efforts to evangelize the displaced native Americans who are unable to swim against the current of history and are swept away by those currents. There are similarities with the immigrant Church in that both have a heritage of persecution, but a big difference is that the immigrant Church has a cohesive identity a baptized people with both ethnic identity and Catholic resilience.    The Church of mission requires time, catechesis, and effort to nurture and assimilate such that it becomes its own mature influence and contributes its blended color in the spectrum of our history. This Church challenges us on many levels but it is a sign that is given by God and represented in Scripture. It is not solely an American experience, but it is repeated in history and is allegorically represented in the forced wandering of Cain as punishment for slaying Abel, whose sacrifice was more pleasing to God. Cain represents a resentment class that is forced to wander and when Cain complains to God about this forced wandering as punishment for killing Abel, God gives him a small mercy. In America this Church is uniquely represented by Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Look, you have now banished me from the ground. I must avoid you and be a constant wanderer on the earth. Anyone may kill me at sight. Not so! the LORD said to him.

If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times. So, the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight.

Cain then left the LORD’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Genesis: 4:14-16

There is an awful lot of wisdom in Scripture. For without the Church of mission, we would not be challenged and assume our history is neatly finished, packaged and prefixed. There’s always evangelization required to avoid the risk of becoming complacent in faith or radicalized by a sense of injury or resentment. The Church of conversion reverses its touch and converts us even as it seeks to convert and conceives in us our own reborn Catholic identity in the phenomenological present which is neither harbored in complacency nor resentment. Neither is the solution, as it seems God has placed Himself in the center as the only solution to reconcile and become the emulsifying agent of this mission Church. Each instance requires the personal placement of the self into the light of Christ the Lord to contribute to the palette of colors that make the American Church.

Now, there is a third secondary color or the Church of Conception to complete the mnemonic. But I’ll keep that a surprise and reserve it for the ending.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x