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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!

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