Catholicism and Colonialism

Through my work on the Cercle Harmonique, I have become increasingly interested in the intersections of Catholicism and colonialism—in particular, the intersections of Catholicism, race, and power. I explored some of these tensions in my 2014 contribution to the Journal of Africana Religions roundtable on black Catholicism. I’m still sitting on some research on black Catholicism in New Orleans. For a religious institution that has always claimed an identity of universal, Catholicism in the Americas has a complicated past and present with racial minorities. If “Catholics are surprising absent from [tellings of] U.S. history,” as Robert Orsi claims, the stories and experiences of non-white Catholics are a step beyond absent. At some point I want to return to black Catholicism in New Orleans, but this is not the only way I plan on approaching the wide range of relationships between Catholicism and colonialism.

Jesuit Missions and Native Communities in the Northwest, 1840–1940

Another way of getting at this topic is through my monograph-length research project on the archives of Jesuits in the Oregon Province. This project is still in its very early stages. Housed at my current institution, these archives are in a mix of English, Latin, Italian, and various Native languages and the materials include handwritten dictionaries of native languages, an amazing collection of photographs taken by priests with old brownie cameras, the early house diaries of the Jesuit order headquarters, and numerous reports from the mission field.


Image from the Peter Paul Prando, S.J. Collection, JOPA; available via Artemis Primary Sources

Spanning from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth century, Jesuit missionaries in the Northwest provide an illuminating counterpoint and complement to the more famous Jesuits in seventeenth-century New France. Like the earlier French Jesuits, the Jesuits out west found themselves in a frontier that was both invigorating and hostile. They focused on learning Native languages and cultures and saw these processes as a key to successful evangelizing. Unlike the earlier Jesuits, these out west operated more systematically and often as part of the federal push to evangelize and “civilize” the Native tribes out west. Yet, the Jesuits lived their mission as foreigners—foreign Jesuits (mainly Italians but also Belgians and other Europeans) who didn’t view themselves as Americans, yet they were contributors to the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” Thus, this project will be a complicated story of colonial missionaries evangelizing in a land not their own, which will pull the West into our transatlantic narratives of American religions.

This project is in its early archival stages. In the meantime, you can see some work I’ve done with my students in the archives here: Digital Jesuits.

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