Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789-1870

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In the late eighteenth century, French émigré priests fled the religious turmoil of the French Revolution and found themselves leading a new wave of Roman Catholic missionaries in the United States. Fathers on the Frontier explores the diverse ways these missionary priests guided the development of the early American church in Maryland, Kentucky, Louisiana, and other pockets of Catholic settlement throughout much of the trans-Appalachian West. Over the course of their evangelistic endeavor, this relatively small group of priests introduced Gallican, ultramontane, and missionary principles to a nascent institutional church prior to the immigration of millions of European Catholics in the nineteenth century.

As author Michael Pasquier shows, this transformation of American Catholicism did not come easily. Several generations of French priests struggled to reconcile their romantic expectations of missionary life with their actual experiences as servants of a foreign church scattered throughout a frontier region with limited access to friends and family members still in France. As they became more accustomed to the lifeways of the American South and West, French missionaries expressed anxiety about apparent discrepancies between how they were taught to practice the priesthood in French seminaries and what the Holy See expected them to achieve as representatives of a universal missionary church.

At no point did French missionaries engage more directly in distinctively American affairs than in the religious debates surrounding slavery, secession, and civil war. These issues, Pasquier argues, compelled even the most politically aloof missionaries to step out of the shadow of Rome and stake their church on the side of the Confederacy. In so doing, they set in motion a strain of Catholicism more amenable to Southern concepts of social conservatism, paternalism, and white supremacy, and strikingly different from the liberal, progressive strain that historians have usually highlighted. Focusing on the collective thoughts, feelings, and actions of priests who found themselves caught between the formal canonical standards of the church and the informal experiences of missionaries in American culture, Fathers on the Frontier illuminates the historical intersection of American, French, and Roman interests in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Pasquier's book is a high-quality study of French émigré missionaries that should attract readers of both religious history and the social sciences."—American Historical Review

"Michael Pasquier's work immeasurably enriches our understanding of southern, and American, religious history, by placing the Catholic priesthood at the center rather than the periphery, mining heretofore little-known sources, and showing the centripetal force exercised by slavery even on religious institutions ostensibly controlled outside the region. More successfully than any other scholar, Pasquier has put Catholicism as a central actor in the religious history of the pre-Civil War South."

—Paul Harvey, author of Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era

"Histories of Catholicism in the United States have too often deferred unduly to its institutional forms or else understated their importance to U.S. Catholics in assuming that the 'real' story of American Catholicism lies always elsewhere than in church. Michael Pasquier's wonderfully subtle, fresh, and welcome achievement in Fathers on the Frontier is to present a lived history of Catholic institution-building in the United States. His portrait of the vividly 'unsettled, unscripted, and unofficial' lives of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French missionary priests who labored to create a settled, scripted, and official American Catholicism sets a promising course for new scholarship both in and beyond U.S. Catholic history."

—Tracy Fessenden, Author of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

"French clergy were unquestionably the most influential priests during the expansion of U.S. Catholicism through the late eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries. Opening to the reader the daily lives of Pères both in their native and adoptive homelands, Fathers on the Frontier makes singular contributions to studies of the priesthood and to the international links that significantly shaped Catholicism in the antebellum United States."

—Timothy Matovina, William and Anna Jean Cushwa Director, Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame

"Drawing on a wealth of primary sources and exhibiting a stunning familiarity with a vast secondary literature, Pasquier exhibits the best of historical scholarship and writing in this superb study. No more will the story of American Catholicism be able to marginalize the French contribution." —The Southern Journal of Religion

"...this book is a significant scholarly effort written in an accessible style, it is highly recommended for librarians, scholars, and a wide range of students in religious studies and history"—Christopher J. Kauffman, The Catholic University of America

"...significant work, reinforcing the trend to free the Catholic past from understanding based on old narratives and the constraints of canonical and theological definitions and language...."—Joseph White, The Catholic University of America

"The book...is an intense, reasoned, carefully written, and well-documented volume."—Terence J. Fay SJ, University of St. Michael's college

"Hughes has crafted a cogently argued, well organized, and clearly written work. Its compelling story and broad historical span will appeal to a wide audience, both scholar and student life."—Brian Larkin, St. John's University

"The book under review is an intense, reasoned, carefully written, and well-documented volume."—Terence J. Fay, University of St. Michael's College

"Fathers on the Frontier offers a compelling portrait of how intelligent men managed to bend themselves to an accomodation with slavery, and it does so without restorting to anachronistic psychohistory, the pleasures of individual biography, or the device of sectional stereotyping."—Michael Pasquier, Louisiana State University

"...an impressive study...."—Jay P. Dolan

"...this book is valuable in understanding the impact of French and Catholic culture in the greater world."—H-France

"This book's contribution resides in its analysis of an underutilised resource: the letters and diaries of French missionaries. Moreover, Pasquier provides an illuminating perspective on the American missions that pays heed to the intricacies of transnational Catholic politics. The directives emanating from Rome (Propaganda Fide) and France (L'oeuvre de la propagation de la foi) during the nineteenth century, and their effects upon the American missions, have seldom been articulated so coherently."—Journal of Religious History

"[T]his book is valuable in understanding the impact of French and Catholic culture in the greater world...Pasquier provides a nuianced and sensitive portrait of men trapped between two cultures and a set of expectations based on French norms on the one hand and the very real conditions of the American frontier on the other. He makes excellent use of source material in both the United States and Europe."—H-France Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195372335
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/29/2010
  • Series: Religion in America Series
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Pasquier is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Louisiana State University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Les Confrères et les Pères: Catholic Priests and Catholic History in the United States
Chapter 1: Missionary Formation and French Catholicism
Chapter 2: Missionary Experience and Frontier Catholicism
Chapter 3: Missionary Revival and Transnational Catholicism
Chapter 4: Missionary Politics and Ultramontane Catholicism
Chapter 5: Slavery, Civil War, and Southern Catholicism

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