July 3, 2020


The patriotism of American Catholics

On July 4, 1776, Charles Carroll was an elected 40-year-old representative to the Continental Congress from Maryland. That was remarkable because Carroll was also a Catholic, and Catholics could not vote in Maryland. He was elected despite the fact that he was Catholic.

Carroll was also the scion of a large estate in Carrollton, and the wealthiest man in the American colonies. For years, he had been campaigning for independence from Great Britain, mainly through letters in the Maryland Gazette that he signed “First Citizen.” That led to his election to the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence 244 years ago on Saturday.

Carroll was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration, which he did on Aug. 2, 1776, along with most members of the Congress. He signed it as Charles Carroll of Carrollton to distinguish himself from several other Charles Carrolls, including his father, Charles Carroll of Annapolis. As the wealthiest man in the colonies, he risked more than most of the signers.

After both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the ratification of the Declaration, Carroll became the last surviving signer and was highly esteemed. He died at age 95 on Nov. 14, 1832.

We mention Carroll as one example of the patriotism of American Catholics. Catholics were few in number at the time of the Revolutionary War. But once they were granted freedom of worship, the Church grew quickly.

Most of that growth came from the fact that the United States was a haven for the impoverished people of Europe. This was especially true of the Irish, who escaped from the potato famine in Ireland. More than 800,000 Irish moved to the United States during the 1840s.

Catholic immigrants continued to come in the 19th century. During the 1880s, 1.5 million came from Germany, 650,000 from Ireland, and 300,000 from Italy. Others came from Poland, Austria, Hungary, France and Spain.

All this, of course, was before there was such a thing as an illegal alien. All immigrants were legal. When Ellis Island was set up to handle European immigrants, those coming in only had to pass a cursory physical exam and show that they had $15.

This growth did not come without its problems. Catholic immigrants usually were poor and were discriminated against. Sometimes there was violence. Nativists protested, especially the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.

Throughout all this, though, Catholics showed that they were patriots despite those who questioned their civic loyalty, claiming that their first loyalty was to the pope.

Catholics have also died for their country in numbers far exceeding their percentage in the population. In World War I, more than 800,000 Catholics served in the military forces with a death toll of more than 22,000. And in World War II, it is estimated that between 25 and 35 percent of the military personnel were Catholic.

During the Civil War, the draft law allowed a man to buy himself a substitute for $300 and free himself from the obligation to serve in the army. The poor Irish couldn’t afford that, so the Irish General Thomas Meagher commanded New York’s Irish Brigade. The brigade began with 3,000 men. By 1863, it was reduced to only 530. At the Battle of Gettysburg, 198 men of the Irish Brigade were killed.

It was during that battle that Holy Cross Father William Corby, later a president of the University of Notre Dame, climbed on a large rock, gave a patriotic speech reminding the solders of their duty to God and country, and gave general absolution. A bronze statue of Father Corby was erected at Gettysburg in 1910. A duplicate of the statue is in front of Corby Hall at Notre Dame.

In World War I, Father Francis P. Duffy was the most celebrated chaplain, serving in the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth,” the Irish regiment commanded by Col. William Donovan. A bronze statue of the heroic Father Duffy stands at the north end of Times Square in New York City.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote, “We Catholics love America—we love it more than Italy, more than Germany, more than Russia. We love its Constitution and its traditions, and we want to see them preserved.”

—John F. Fink

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!