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Destinations: Books

Get hooked on American Catholic history

By Jay Copp
Liguori, 326 pages, $15.95


It’s likely the smallest Catholic church in America. But think twice before you open the door to St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, the 14-foot-by-20-foot edifice tucked away amid the cedar trees on a country road east of Fort Atkinson in eastern Iowa. And think twice before you open The Liguori Guide. Why? Open that door or this book and you risk being hooked on American Catholic history, which will take you down a stimulating, inspiring and tantalizing road. Catholic history is faith-deepening. The physical Catholic monuments -- rarely architectural gems -- begin to weave the tapestry of one’s own Catholic life in these United States.

Your parents and grandparents, the uncle here, the aunt there, the half-remembered family story -- these are the friendly Catholic spirits, ghosts if you will, that swirl around in the near-conscious as one first delves into and then touches the past.

The 1885 chapel in Iowa was built because Johann Gaetner’s mother promised God she would build a chapel if her soldier son survived a Russian campaign.

Another small church -- this one in Maine and not as petite as Gaetner’s -- is the attractive redbrick St. Patrick Church in Newcastle. The oldest Catholic church in New England, it was founded by Irish immigrants in 1796. And in Maine, too, among that state’s many Liguori entries, there is at Norridgewock a monument to Fr. Sebastian Rasle, who in 1724 gave his life defending Native Americans attacked by British soldiers.

Around America, it barely matters where the Catholic traveler stops -- there’s something of note. Downtown Dallas at Allen and Cochrane Streets boasts St. Peter the Apostle Church, the city’s oldest African-American parish, started with 12 members, including some former slaves, in 1905.

New York City? Well, head to Chinatown and Little Italy and there’s the start of the city’s Catholic presence: Old St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, and Old St. Patrick’s on Mott Street. Each important in the life of the person who may be America’s first black Catholic saint -- Pierre Toussaint.

For $15.95, this Liguori paperback is a revelation. Taken along when you travel, its entries become destinations in themselves, or that equally welcome boon to the traveler: a chapel-of-ease for a little prayer, reflection and thanks.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large and author of New Catholics for a New Century: The U.S. Church Today and Where It’s Headed. His e-mail address is ajones@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000