The Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, sits in the shadow of the towering, unique sable edifice that is the K of C Headquarters. “Originally,” notes Peter Sonski, the Museum’s Education, Outreach and Visitor Services Manager, “our museum was located inside the headquarters itself. However, we were able to purchase this current building from the City of New Haven some years ago [in the mid-1990s], and it has been our home ever since it opened in 2001.” It’s a building in the “brutalist” style—ironically the very same style of the Yale School of Architecture building just up the street.

Right now the Knights’ Museum has two fascinating exhibits whose overarching theme is “Coming to America”. The first is “The Mission of Faith: The Coming of the Gospel to America”. The other is “Fleeing Famine: Irish Immigration to North America, 1845-1860”.

“The Mission of Faith: The Coming of the Gospel to America”

Jess Mallory, a member of the Museum staff, took me around The Mission of Faith, which begins with a re-creation not only of the “feel” of the missions, but also the reproductions of maps that were created by European explorers.

There are two galleries broken into several sections including New Spain, New France and Colonial Maryland which discuss the missionary work of several religious orders—including the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans.

“The first—or one of the first, after the mapping of the territories—problem of the missionaries, was that of language,” noted Mallory. And it’s worth noting: it’s not like the missionaries had Mohawk phrasebooks to figure out how to communicate with the native peoples. Or even dictionaries to study back home in Europe to work with to adequately prepare for their mission.

“And even once the language barrier had been breached, the missionaries had to contend with the weather,” Mallory said. Again, we now take our North American winters—replete with blizzards, Nor’easters, and Great Lake Effect snow—for granted. “But for the European missionaries, these winters were something entirely new. And brutally cold!”

Mallory also noted that one way for the missionaries to deal with the language barrier, “was to trade with local trappers and explorers and learning from their trade, thus find out more about the local languages.”

However, without knowing it, the missionaries—along with the European settlers—brought not only the Gospel message, but new diseases. “This was, of course, not only unintentional on the part of the missionaries,” said Mallory, “but there was no way to know about or prevent it at the time. However, once the natives [believed] that some of the Jesuits [or Franciscans or Dominicans] were ‘making them sick’, they were looked upon as unwanted souls—making their mission even more difficult.”

“Nevertheless they were fervent in their desire to preach the Gospel, to spread the Word of God, despite the language barrier [each tribe had a slightly different tongue], the wild swings in freezing cold winters and scorching summers, and the fact that they were—unknowingly—carrying diseases … still they soldiered on,” said Mallory.

“Sometimes the missionaries were also set upon by rival groups of Europeans—raiders who would come in and ransack the mission.” This most un-Christian-like example led to having to rebuild the already shaky first iterations of some of the missions, again and again.

The map of America at the Knights’ Museum is impressively dotted with markers designating the missions: from St. Damian out in Hawai’i in the 19th century, to the Ste. Marie Mission, to the Alamo (which few people realize was a mission) to Fort Niagara (which was another mission/fortress that passed hands from the French, to the English, finally to the colonists, all the while serving the Tuscaroran Indians) and every place in between. It’s really quite incredible and beautifully displayed.

Ms. Sheffer noted that “it would be impossible to document and replicate every North American Mission here, and a few are omitted just for the sake of space; we didn’t aim for completeness, but for a good representative sampling overall.”

“The mission was a way to bring them [both the missionaries and the native peoples] all together—spiritually, as well as for health and education: the mission provided all of these things,” said Mallory. “It was a community that grew out of the mission—European natives bringing science and medicine and ultimately, and most importantly, saving souls.”

The Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans may have been the first “shock wave” of Christian missionaries, but it’s good to remember that the great swathe of Middle America was proselytized by groups such as the Norbertines from Holland (in Wisconsin), the Congregation of Holy Cross (in Indiana), the Benedictines (in Minnesota), the Trappists (in Kentucky), and the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary way out in the Pacific. Also not to be forgotten: the Ursuline Sisters and the Recollects.

Bethany Sheffer, the curator of the museum, stepped in to continue the tour and give more of the back story on the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1616-1673: “We are able to tell and expand the story of Catholic America here in the Knights’ museum and these documents, which have been meticulously maintained … help us do that.”

Perhaps the best-known of these missionaries to the New World are the North American Martyrs: St. René Goupil (1642), St. Isaac Jogues (1646), St. Jean de Lalande  (1646), St. Antoine Daniel (1648), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1649), St. Noël Chabanel (1649), St. Charles Garnier (1649), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1649), who represent a cross-section of Jesuits, Franciscans and the laity. Indeed, the Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Pequonnack, New Jersey prays a weekly perpetual novena to these martyrs every Thursday in front of a large painting of the Passion of St. Jean de Brebeuf.

“With the Spanish mission we still have a lot of the actual art and architecture preserved  in Texas, and up and down the coast of California, especially—one need only think of all the work St. Junipero Serra did there. However,” she continued, “this is not the case with the French. The original structures—which were made of wood and endured such terrible winters—simply didn’t make it. There are a couple exceptions—the log cabin chapels in Illinois and Notre Dame—but in general the French structures [in America] didn’t survive the way the Spanish did.”

“In 1523 Giovanni Verrazano was hired by the French to explore the eastern coastline of North America, and ten years later, Jacques Cartier continued to explore the region on behave of France but it wasn’t until the 1600s that the French were able to establish more permanent settlements.” said Sheffer.

“It’s a very wild history!” she continued “Wild territory, wild animals, European infighting—especially between the French and English—as well as the French-and-Indian war, too!”

But out of chaos comes not only order, but sanctity: in addition to the plethora of martyrs, other saints emerged such as Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha, Marianne Cope and St. Junipero Serra, OFM the latest among them.

“St. Isaac Jogues, was famous in his time for placing crosses on the trees at Auriesville, NY and we have tried to replicate that here,” Ms. Sheffer mentioned while showing the crudely-carved crosses that lend an air and aura of authenticity to the display. Indeed it feels like one has walked from the Spanish missions into the French, just within a few feet of each other!

“And we do talk about the English, too!” Sheffer mentioned, referring to Lord Baltimore, and Maryland. It is good to remember to that of all the early colonies, Maryland was actually founded by English Catholics and that the current Supreme Chaplain of the Knights is Archbishop William Lori, of Baltimore.

“That’s the thing that fascinates me the most,” said Sheffer, echoing Mallory’s comments, “all of these missionaries had—had—to learn the languages if they were going to have any success with the Native Americans. They—the missionaries—did not force the Native Americans to learn French or Spanish or English—let alone Latin: they learned the local languages to teach and spread the faith.”

“The physical plants of the missions may not have been successful [in that they did not long survive as historical buildings], but in the end they were successful in spreading the Gospel message and the Catholic faith in North America,” noted Sheffer.

The museum contains a re-creation of a Spanish and a French mission, a lecture series, and an astounding amount of artwork.

“Fleeing Famine: Irish Immigration to North America, 1845-1860”

Upstairs at the Knights of Columbus Museum, a very different exhibition is on display. “Fleeing Famine”, which runs through next September, recounts how people fled their homeland during the potato famine to come to America not only for a “better” life, but simply to live.

“It’s worth remembering that our founder, [Venerable Servant of God] Fr. McGivney’s parents came here from Ireland on the ‘coffin ships’”, as the Irish came to call the cargo vessels that took weeks to cross the North Atlantic.

“We believe we may know what ship Fr. McGivney’s father came over to America on—the H.H. Boody—but we’re not certain about the Fr. McGivney’s mother was on,” said Ms. Sheffer.

“1.5 million Irish came over in that fifteen-year period we have on display here”, added Mallory. To put that into terms that show the magnitude of the migration, that’s almost 30% of the entire population of Ireland. And in one of those numerical coincidences one could not make up: about 1.5 million Irish perished during the famine.

The “Fleeing Famine” display features a reproduction of the deck of one of the coffin ships, complete with a real brick fireplace/open oven (not the greatest idea on a wooden ship), along with stunning paintings of the ships themselves. The paintings are by British artist Rodney Charman (b. 1944) and capture such horrible moments as a foundering ship dislodging its passengers onto an actual iceberg, while the captain gets away on his own personal rowboat. “Mercifully most of the people on the iceberg were rescued, but some did die of exposure,” said Sheffer.

The six paintings, five of which feature actual ships (four famine ships and one painting of the USS Jamestown, which brought food over Ireland in a relief effort) are featured from the permanent collection of the Knights of Columbus Museum.  Bronzes on loan from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University are also included in the exhibition and are stunning to behold.

“The passenger laws in the United States were tougher than those in Canada, so often people who had hoped to get to America had to take a detour North,” said Mallory.

“It’s important to recall that John J. Phelan (1851-1936), the second Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus (and a Connecticut Secretary of State) was among those who made the 3,000 mile trek across the Atlantic, though it was just after the Famine period,” added Mallory.

“While we don’t delve too much in to the famine itself we do concentrate on how difficult it was to actually get from Ireland to America, or at least Canada,” said Sheffer.

“One thing we don’t know for sure is how many people, exactly, died during these voyages,” Sheffer noted. “Record-keeping was notoriously poor back then,” echoed Mallory. “And keep in mind that, if the journey itself or disease or the elements didn’t kill you, there was a good chance that a lack of rations might. For example, infants were not counted [for rations] since it was assumed that they would live off their mother’s milk,” said Mallory.

The travelers were beset by the beast known as the North Atlantic and its icebergs and storms which sunk many ships. Other nightmares included disease—which on such small ships spread very, very quickly as “the trip from Ireland to North America took anywhere from a month to two months or more!”

However in Canada, many sisters, known as the “Grey Nuns,” formally known as the Sisters of Charity of Montréal, offered assistance and aid to those that arrived at some of the quarantine locations—thus bringing full-circle the religious orders that came to America to bring the Gospel (and healthcare and education) and the Irish who emigrated to escape almost certain death in their homeland two centuries later.