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.

To try to tell these stories, I’ve brought a number of my undergraduate classes into the Jesuit archives on Gonzaga’s campus. We house the archives of what used to be called the Jesuits in the Oregon Province (now merged with California to become Jesuits West). 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.

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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 unforgiving. 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.

I’m at work on a couple articles on the Jesuit missions, so far with a focus on the Alaskan context and thinking critically about Jesuit-indigenous interactions. You can see some work I’ve done with my students in the archives here: Digital Jesuits.

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