CathedralWhen we think of “the faith and the South” we tend to think of Protestantism in general, and perhaps the Southern Baptists in particular, especially in terms of the so-called Bible Belt. There is, however, much more to the South than the Protestant evangelical or fundamentalist culture that has made its presence felt, socially and politically, from southern Virginia to Texas. From the earliest colonial times, the Catholic Church has had a presence in the South, without which the South would not be what it is.

The city of St. Augustine in Florida, the oldest continually occupied city in the United States, has its roots in the Spanish settlers who arrived there in 1565. It was these intrepid pioneers and explorers who, on September 8 of that year, celebrated the first Mass ever recorded in what would become the United States. Other Masses would probably have been celebrated earlier than this date, all of which were in the South. Explorers, with priests among them, had arrived in Charlotte Harbor in Florida as early as 1522 and at Cape Fear in North Carolina four years later—almost a hundred years before the Mayflower brought the first English Protestant settlers to what is now New England, and eighty years before the first Mass was said by Spanish explorers in California.

From St. Augustine, moving north, Franciscan missionaries established settlements along the coast as far north as the Savannah River until the arrival of the British put an end to such missionary expansion. The British colonists sought to eradicate Catholicism from Georgia and it wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that Catholics began to return to the state, settling first at Locust Grove, near Augusta, and at Savannah. Relations between Catholics and Protestants in Savannah, at first strained, improved greatly after the Protestant population recognized the heroism of Catholic religious sisters in caring for the sick and dying during the Yellow Fever epidemics in the city in 1854 and 1876. Thereafter, relations between Catholics and Protestants were so good and exemplary that Savannah was spared the anti-Catholic riots that afflicted other parts of the South.

Perhaps the most romantic feature of the story of the Faith in the South is that of the Cajuns, French Catholic refugees from British persecution in Canada, who settled in Louisiana. The plight of the Cajuns (les Acadiens) was immortalized with great literary beauty in Longfellow’s long, narrative poem, Evangeline, in which the eponymous heroine, based on a real-life character, seeks to find her betrothed, from whom she was forcibly separated by the British on the eve of their wedding. Today, the Cajun way of life, in terms of cuisine, folk music, and religious faith, is one of the most vibrantly alive of all ethnic cultures in the United States.

The Catholic presence in Alabama dates back to the first Spanish expedition of 1539 and it was the Spanish Catholics who first settled the state. In the words of Christopher J. Carter, writing in the St. Austin Review, it was “these first Alabamians, these Catholic Alabamians, who shaped Alabama and her colonial history.” Further north, in Tennessee, the Catholic presence has been more muted, and therefore less mooted. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, better known as the Nashville Dominicans, have been at the heart of the Catholic presence in Tennessee, ever since their founding in 1860. Today, although Tennessee remains one of the least Catholic of all the states, the Dioceses of Nashville and Knoxville are both in the top ten dioceses in the country for the number of adult conversions to the Faith.

If the Dominicans have had a presence in Tennessee since 1860, the Benedictines of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina trace their roots back to their arrival in the state in 1876. Today, Belmont Abbey College is one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country. As for the Franciscans, Mother Angelica’s arrival in Alabama heralded the beginning of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which now has a global media presence, unimaginable when it was founded in 1980.

Among the giants of the Faith in the history of the South are James, Cardinal Gibbons, Bishop of Richmond, Virginia, from 1872 to 1877, and Archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland, from 1877 until his death in 1921, and Bishop John England, first Bishop of Charleston, whose indefatigable zeal made him, in the judgment of the historian James Wood, “the most significant prelate in the South, and perhaps the whole United States, during the antebellum era.”

Although this briefest of panoramic overviews cannot do justice to the dynamic presence of the Faith in the South, and though it suffers from many significant sins of omission, it does at least show that there is much more to the Christian presence in the Southern States than the Protestant Bible Belt. Above the Belt, so to speak, the South wears the Sacred Heart of Jesus on its chest, and the crown of Christ the King on its head. As for the Mother of Christ, perhaps we should proclaim her the Queen of the South!

Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (September 2017).

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of a photo taken by Kasper Rasmussen, courtesy of Unsplash.

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