Curbing ‘Cultural Amnesia’ and Appreciating U.S. Church History

Emily Stimpson Discusses The American Catholic Almanac

In a refreshing new take on historical storytelling, authors Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson take readers on a page-a-day journey through 365 compelling stories of the historical contributions of American men and women shaped by their Catholic faith.

Emily Stimpson provided the Register with her take on the new book, The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States (Image Books, September 2014). 

 

Please introduce your new book, The American Catholic Almanac. What inspired you to write it, and who is it for?

Over the past several years, discussions about faith, politics and the place of religion in public life have grown increasingly hostile. At least part of the reason for that, we believe, is that, as a nation, we’ve forgotten much of our history. And as a Church, we’ve done the same.

We don’t know many of the men and women of deep faith who shaped both our country and our Church, and this cultural amnesia has contributed to a tragic loss of respect and appreciation for the role of religion (and particularly the role of the Catholic Church) in American history.

With the almanac, we wanted to help American Catholics of all ages and political stripes — as well as all other interested parties — recover a sense of her history, by introducing them to the fascinating, brave, complicated and holy Catholics who are part of the American story.

Knowing the stories of those remarkable men and women enriches both our lives and faith. More fundamentally, when we know and share their stories, we understand our own story — as both Americans and Catholics — so much better. That understanding changes the way we engage the culture. It also changes the way we engage each other.

 

For many people, the word “almanac” doesn’t scream “interesting.” How might it challenge their expectations?

When most people think of an “almanac,” they think of a dry, boring collection of facts and figures. But that’s not what this is. We didn’t just want to relay facts. We wanted to invite our readers into an adventure, to energize and inspire them. Accordingly, we decided to tell stories.

The American Catholic Almanac is really just one great, big storybook. Day by day, as you move through the year, you encounter snapshots of the American Catholics who’ve come before us. It’s an easy way for the busy and overwhelmed (but curious) to learn more about the history of the Church in America, as well as about many of the fantastic men and women who made that history.

 

What is your favorite story or fact from the book?

At this point, that’s a bit like asking a father or mother who his or her favorite child is. It’s simply impossible to pick just one. Every day we worked on this project was an exciting journey of discovery. We found ourselves constantly calling up friends to tell them some story or other or posting on Facebook the fun facts we had come across. For example, did you know that the first seminary in the United States — St. Mary’s in Baltimore — was a former tavern? How Catholic is that?

There were also people such as Father Peter Whelan, an Irish-American priest, who, during the American Civil War, ministered by himself in the hell on earth that was Andersonville Prison [one of the largest Confederate military prisons during the Civil War, located in Georgia]; and Margaret Haughery, a penniless, illiterate widow in 19th-century New Orleans, who launched a successful dairy and bakery simply to raise money for orphans. By the time of her death, she had built six orphanages in Louisiana. We could go on and on. Honestly, 365 days wasn’t enough to do justice to all of the wonderful stories we found.

 

How do you think this book will impact the way Catholics view and live their faith?

For starters, if readers are anything like us, they’ll come to realize just how much they’ve taken for granted about being an American Catholic. When you know the stories of those who have gone before you — what they fought for, what they sacrificed — you see your own life and faith in a whole new way. You have a sense of where you belong in the story and a desire to contribute something, to even fight for something, so that future generations can have even more than you.

On another level, we think this book has something to teach all Catholics about what it means to spread the faith in the midst of a hostile culture. There’s a lot of talk right now about the New Evangelization, about a renewed proclamation of the Gospel that can help reawaken the faith in the West. But for all the talk, there’s also a great deal of confusion. Many Catholics, both lay and ordained, are at a bit of a loss about how to go about living their faith and talking about it in such a way that whole cultures can be transformed. But in the lives of early American missionaries and early American lay Catholics, there are lessons that can help us do just that. Catholicism shouldn’t have survived in America. Catholics were so few in number, and anti-Catholic prejudice was rampant. And yet, the Church not only survived, it thrived. We believe that in many ways what worked before can work again. But first we have to know the stories.

 

What benefits do you think families can get from reading this book together?

The almanac is a great resource for Catholic families, schools and anyone curious about American history. Parents and teachers might consider using the stories as a starting point for lessons on the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War or the great waves of migration that made the United States what it is. They can also use it to learn more about the lives of the American saints — both official and unofficial — and find in those saints true friends, ready and willing to help families as they strive for holiness.

 

Anything you’d like to add?

Just how excited we are for others to start meeting the people in these pages. Over the last year, we’ve gotten to know some of the most fascinating, brilliant, funny and breathtakingly beautiful men and women. And again and again, we’d say to each other, “How did we not know this? Why have I never heard of this person?” People think you have to look across an ocean to find examples of holiness. But you don’t. Our nation’s history is filled with remarkable Catholics who show us what it means to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. They have so much to teach us — so much to give us. We were blessed to become friends with them while working on this book, and we can’t wait for others to become friends with them as well.

 

Katie Warner writes from California.

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