America’s Catholic Heritage

Mission of faith

America’s Catholic Heritage

Recounting missionary efforts to evangelize North America

The 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus marked the beginning of a long period of European exploration and migration in the Western Hemisphere. Through time, European influence defined the social and political values of the emergent colonies in North America, and ultimately the nations and cultures that would result.

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, explorers from Spain, France, England and other European countries arrived in North America in search of its natural resources as well as the route to Asia via the west. On their arrival, they encountered many societies of native peoples with languages and customs much different than their own.

During this period, Catholic missionaries — priests and religious sisters — from communities such as the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and the Company of St. Ursula (Ursulines) — arrived to spread the Gospel among inhabitants and minister to the spiritual needs of new settlers. Many became explorers themselves, chronicling their experiences and describing the land and peoples they encountered.

The Knights of Columbus Museum presents a new exhibition featuring the contribution of missionaries in the exploration and evangelization of North America. Mission of Faith: The Coming of the Gospel to America, opens April 9, 2016, surveying the history of missionary activity with a focus on its colonial period. It details the territories explored and settled by the French, Spanish, and English and identifies individuals as well as religious orders in the effort to bring Christianity to the region.

The exhibition traces Spanish missionary work in the Caribbean, Mexico and the southern and western United States. It follows French missionaries from the Canadian Maritimes, across present-day New York and the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River to Louisiana. It recounts the arrival of English Catholics on St. Clement’s Island, the establishment of Maryland’s religious Tolerance Act and the foundation of the first U.S. diocese in Baltimore.

Missionaries came to a foreign land and culture with zeal to teach their faith to the indigenous peoples. Their hopes and efforts of evangelizing souls, however, was fraught with hardship and dangers. Faced with navigating unfamiliar terrain and weather conditions, missionaries had to adapt to their new environments quickly. Their unfamiliarity with local customs and languages proved particularly challenging. Missionaries had much to learn before they could begin to teach.

Despite the struggles, they endured, and their influence in the spread of Catholicism in North America has had lasting impact. In the United States alone, there are approximately 78 million Catholics, nearly a quarter of the present population. What’s more, the Catholic Church is one of the largest providers of medical services in United States and has been at the forefront of formal education systems as well.

The inaugural presentation of the lecture series, The Cathedral Doors: Sanctity Upon our Land, was presented April 16, 2016 by George Burke of Mount Saint Mary College. The entire presentation is available for viewing on YouTube

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A Mission of Faith is open to the public until Sept. 18, 2016. Schools and groups are welcome, and the museum staff provides students guided tours and related learning activities. To schedule a group tour, contact museum@kofc.org

The Knights of Columbus Museum is at 1 State Street in New Haven and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission and on-site parking are free.