Michael Pasquier. Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789-1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.  ix + 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-537233-5. Reviewed by Charles H. Lippy, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Traditional appraisals of the development of Roman Catholicism in the United States look first to English Catholics who settled colonial Maryland and then primarily to the huge influx of Irish Catholics in the middle third of the nineteenth century, with a nod to those who came from Germany. Attention then turns to the millions who emigrated from central, southern, and eastern Europe—especially Italy and Slavic regions—between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. A recurring theme is the ongoing dominance of Irish priests and prelates within the American church until well into the twentieth century. The longstanding Catholic presence in the southwest, sustained by a chain of missions, and the Catholic experience in places like Louisiana, the Gulf coast of Alabama, and Florida, get only passing mention. If French Catholicism comes into the story, it is pretty much confined to those who came to Canada and a few who trickled across the northern border into New England.

As well, most accounts look at Catholic developments through the prism of leaders and the church’s institutional apparatus. From John Carroll, who became the first American prelate in 1789, to James Cardinal Gibbons, who followed Carroll as archbishop of Baltimore roughly a century later, bishops and archbishops dominate the story, along with plenary councils, the expansion of a parochial school system, and the ongoing need to combat rampant anti-Catholicism. Recent historians augment their reflections with increased attention to the vital role of women religious in nourishing American Catholicism. Rarely discussed, though, is the role of the priests, especially missionary priests, and the complex ways they lived out a Catholic identity in areas where churches and schools were few and distances between the Catholic families they served great.

"A vibrant, if sometimes uncertain, Catholicism was present from the start and not always hidden beneath the surface."  


Michael Pasquier’s Fathers on the Frontier provides a much needed corrective in three important ways. First, he focuses on the scores of French priests, many recruited at seminaries in France, who served on the early western frontier of the new nation—an area now largely part of the old or deep South. Pasquier’s book is a reminder of the signal importance of French missionary priests in assuring that Catholicism took hold in the early Republic. Second, Pasquier dissects the challenges these frontier missionary priests encountered in remaining faithful to a tradition that saw itself as unchanging truth while adapting to a culture that was religiously heretical (in the Catholic view), lacking in the institutional structures that undergirded Catholic life in Europe, and inherently suspicious of authority. Third, Pasquier shatters the image of the South, particularly in the antebellum period, as being virtually monolithically evangelical Protestant. A vibrant, if sometimes uncertain, Catholicism was present from the start and not always hidden beneath the surface.

One constant for missionary priests was forming and maintaining a priestly identity. Most received their formal training in France, where the number of priests was significantly larger than on the U.S. Southern frontier, even after the assault on the Church wrought by the French Revolution. Pasquier demonstrates how priests provided mutual support to each other, a matter complicated by the necessity of itinerating on the frontier, the poverty that stalked priests, threats posed by disease, and the negative examples of rogue priests who openly took concubines or were noted for their excessive use of alcohol. A devotional Catholicism that emphasized suffering which was taking root in the early nineteenth century also provided consolation. At the same time, missionary priests endeavored to project confidence and strength to Catholic laity to exhibit what they believed appropriate behavior for priests. If lay folk knew that priests themselves suffered angst, they might waver in their own faith. The impossibility of maintaining ecclesiastical discipline on the frontier only added to the angst.

At the same time, as Frenchmen, these priests had a transnational quality. Although they labored on the Southern frontier, they still had one foot on French soil—at least in their minds. Region thus played an extraordinarily vital role in determining how these priests lived out their faith, often adapting in ways that would have shocked their counterparts cloistered in French seminaries. Recruiters, including some Franco-American bishops, sometimes created too ideal a portrait of evangelistic work among Native Americans and African Americans, two groups frequently ignored. Trying to minister to the scattered Catholic families along the Southern frontier and even in urban areas such as New Orleans was all-consuming. Often editors deleted the shocking realities of lived experience from letters published in France, much as letters from Protestant missionaries glossed over hardship to celebrate even minimal success in securing conversion.

By the 1840s, French missionary priests found themselves becoming perhaps more American than French or Roman—or at least more adept at filtering what came from France or Rome through an American lens for an American Catholic people. Pasquier calls attention to the rise of Catholic devotionalism and the increased import attached to doctrines such as that of the Immaculate Conception to demonstrate how fluid was the negotiation of defining what was authentically Catholic in the American setting. He also scrutinizes cases where decisions of bishops were appealed to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to illustrate how those in the trenches straddled two if not three religious worlds (American, French, and Roman) as well as multiple levels of ecclesiastical politics (laity, priests, American hierarchy, Vatican officialdom).

"Pasquier concludes that when the Civil War began, French missionary priests were so thoroughly assimilated to Southern ways that they linked the health of the church to the maintenance of Southern slave culture."  


Readers of this journal will appreciate the fifth chapter of Pasquier’s work. There he offers a finely nuanced look at how Southern Catholics, including French missionary priests, responded to sectionalism, slavery, and the Civil War. Pasquier unravels the ever more strident endorsement of American slavery (as opposed to the international slave trade) and support for the Confederate cause. For French priests, maintaining social order to protect the Church trumped the salvation of individual souls, especially souls of slaves. Slaveowners themselves—the Roman Catholic Church became the largest slaveowner in the Louisiana Territory at one point—priests struggled more with the dangers of selling slaves to heretics (i.e., Protestants) than with the moral issues of holding humans as property. Pasquier highlights the 1852 pastoral letter of Archbishop Antoine Blanc, who insisted that true freedom was freedom from sin, not freedom from bondage sanctioned by society. Consequently French priests served as chaplains to Confederate troops, sharing many experiences with their Protestant counterparts, but providing a different style of ministry because of the Catholic emphasis on the sacraments. Pasquier concludes that when the Civil War began, French missionary priests were so thoroughly assimilated to Southern ways that they linked the health of the church to the maintenance of Southern slave culture. Nor was there the same transnational identity or even struggle for a distinct priestly identity that marked an earlier era. The French Catholic presence in the South had become fully Southern.

Pasquier ends his story with the reluctance of Southern Catholics, French or not, to minister to the spiritual needs of freed slaves. But by 1870, the massive migration from central, southern, and eastern Europe was transforming American Catholicism; no longer would there be active recruitment of young men in French seminaries to come to the American frontier. 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.


Charles H. Lippy
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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