Kevin Starr’s California Dreams and ‘Continental Ambitions’

Founder of USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies Dies Jan. 14


Professor Kevin Starr of the University of Southern California, historian of California and author of a new book on Catholicism in the New World, Continental Ambitions, died of a heart attack at age 76 Jan. 14. 

The University of San Francisco (USF) and Harvard-education scholar served as the California state librarian from 1994 to 2004. In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Starr into the California Hall of Fame.Professor Kevin Starr of the University of Southern California, historian of California and author of a new book on Catholicism in the New World, Continental Ambitions, died of a heart attack at age 76 Jan. 14.

Amid these many accomplishments, he also taught at the University of Southern California since 1989.

It was there that he founded and directed the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His most notable achievement is his eight-volume series titled Americans and the California Dream.

The local Catholic community mourned his passing.

“The unexpected death … of Kevin Starr is a great loss to all of us. He was a fourth-generation San Franciscan whose Catholic faith was the bedrock of his life and all of his magnificent scholarly pursuits,” said Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco in an official statement. “He was devoted to his earliest educators, the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, and then continued his journey of faith in the Bay Area at St. Boniface School, St. Ignatius Prep, St. Joseph’s Seminary and USF. He is rightly being lauded as the pre-eminently California historian.

“And with the publication of his newest book, which he described as the first in a series of the history of Catholic Culture in North America, he might have become the pre-eminent historian of Roman Catholicism of our continent. Kevin was a good friend of the archdiocese and of several archbishops. He graciously accepted my recent invitation to spend a day this spring with our priests to reflect together on Catholic culture and history in this country. We will sadly miss that time with this great Catholic San Franciscan. Our hearts go out to his beloved wife, Sheila, and the entire family, whom he loved dearly. They all have a special remembrance in our prayers at this time.”


Committed to History

Starr’s commitment to history was reflected in his support of the Catholic Textbook Project.

“In light of Dr. Starr’s superb intellect and understanding of history and writing, his testimony of highest praise for Catholic Textbook Project’s history textbooks for Catholic schools remains one of our greatest honors,” said Michael Van Hecke, president and founder of the Catholic Textbook Project, in a statement. “Dr. Starr’s significant research on California history continues to provide a rich resource for our own textbook development, especially for our soon-to-be released fourth grade history textbook modules.

“God bless Dr. Starr and all the good he has done, all the wonder he has inspired, all the high standards and integrity he has modeled and encouraged in his students and readers, during his 76 years on earth.”

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, was a longtime friend of Starr.

As Father Fessio reminisced to the Register, “Professor Starr had a great sense of humor. He was brilliant; he loved the Church and wanted to give back. His death is a loss for the Church. He was one of the best authors we worked with: talented, humble, appreciative. He was always gracious and warm.”

The Jesuit priest discussed the making of Starr’s Continental Ambitions. The idea began in Easter 2015, when Father Fessio was assisting at the Holy Saturday Mass at the cathedral in Santa Rosa, California.

Poet Dana Gioia introduced Starr to Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa; Starr thanked Bishop Vasa for his recent talk and then went on to tell Father Fessio that he was writing a book about the history of Catholics in North America.

When Father Fessio received the manuscript on his desk, it totaled more than 1,000 pages.

Despite the manuscript’s intimidating size, he said, “I couldn’t put it down. He shows us things to be ashamed of and things to be proud of. It was like watching a movie — it’s better than a movie. I learned so much.”

He also recounted how he, Starr and Starr’s wife would sit out on the deck at Ignatius Press, with Starr smoking his cigar and all drinking wine as they discussed his text.

As Father Fessio remarked, “Had [Starr] finished it, it would’ve been a great monument. He finished half of the second volume. Even though this is unfinished, it shows how Catholics helped in the formation of this great country. Had he finished it, it would’ve been a great legacy.”

Father Fessio counts among Starr’s legacy his students and, above all, his two daughters, his marriage to Sheila for more than 50 years and his seven grandchildren.

Gioia, a colleague of Starr’s at USC as Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Culture, first met him when he returned to California from Washington, D.C. As Gioia told the Register, “Kevin Starr was the greatest historian of California ever. He explained the complex nature of the state both to Californians and to the nation. He saw California as the ultimate test of the American dream, a good and prosperous life for all citizens.”

He continued, “Religious identity, values and disagreements shaped the ultimate history of nations and regions. What other great historian today understands the power of faith from the inside? Kevin was a devout, lifelong Catholic who took joy in his faith. For most of his life, he was a daily communicant. He was frank about problems in the Church, but he was unapologetic about the Catholicism that he understood as an unqualified blessing to humanity.”

That faith extended to his scholarship. “Kevin was the key person responsible for bringing the Center for Advanced Catholic Studies to USC,” Gioia said. “He felt that it was intellectually invigorating to have a serious Catholic presence at a secular university. He was also a key person in helping me create the first national conference on ‘The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination’ at USC in 2015. The second will happen this April at Fordham.”

As Gioia put it, “Kevin was the most jovial and congenial colleague you could imagine. He had the gift of making any social occasion — from a small lunch to a formal banquet — a more memorable and lively occasion. Every meal became a feast of conversation.”


Bringing History to Life

During a Jan. 13 interview, the Register was privileged to take part in one of these conversational feasts.

Starr was enthused about the sequel he was writing to Continental Ambitions. He spoke passionately for more than an hour, radiating good humor and erudition, truly excited about his subject.

As Starr told the Register, “When I looked in the mirror, I saw the history of continental Catholics had to be done now — it was 20 years of work. I sat down and got it done. I wanted to make a contribution to the Church. I am working on the second volume about the American Revolution and early republic.” Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience is an ambitious work. Its prologue covers Christianity in Greenland among Scandinavians. He then explores the ventures of Spain and France in the New World, as well as Recusant Catholics in the British colonies.

“It’s about the concept of projecting Catholic Christianity across the North Atlantic,” Starr said. “This had to be linked to settlement, travel, economic development and exploration. I had to document the fact that Catholic people were the first entrada [entry] of Christianity into North America. We have to be reminded we’re not a Johnny-come-lately to the American experiment. We were part of the American experiment from the beginning.”

He saw Continental Ambitions as a departure from the way history is typically taught.

As Starr told the Register, “In general, it’s about the historicity of Catholic presence. We see ourselves as immigrants, as mid-19th century immigrants; this continental history is not known among Catholics. We usually have ‘it started in New England and moved west.’”

He noted that one of the exceptions was California, where the Catholicism of the past is very much present:  “70% of Californians live in the shadow of Spanish California.”

While the evangelization of California isn’t the main focus of Continental Ambitions, Starr was certainly enthusiastic about it.

“I cut everything off before 1775 (the sections on New France and Catholics in the British colonies), except for 1841 in California,” he said.

As he noted, “There was extraordinary physical hardship. The entrada (entry) was delayed until 1769. We tend to see the landscape of Baja, San Diego and Monterey as benevolent. St. Junípero Serra insisted on walking, despite a bad leg. The Christianization of Alta California was late and physically difficult.”

He suggested a vivid image: Juan Bautista De Anza’s 1775-1776 expedition brought entire families from Tubac, Arizona, to San Francisco and eventually Los Angeles.

What if Lewis and Clark trekking to the shores of the Columbia River had to bring 240 civilian families from Missouri?

With the imagination that makes his books so engaging, Starr said, “If the Pilgrims had landed in Santa Monica rather than Massachusetts, there would be seven states.”

Recent histories have depicted Serra the now-saint as a genocidal tyrant toward the native Californians.

 But Starr refuted this, saying that Serra went to Mexico City to condemn the sexual exploitation of Native-American women and cared for the people’s welfare.

In his conversation with the Register, Starr discussed history as well as the challenges of writing a Catholic one.

“You have to tell the truth. Catholics are not exempt from misbehavior, especially with indigenous peoples. There were atrocities in New Mexico, but there were hearings on it in Mexico City.”

Starr’s thoroughness makes Continental Ambitions a diverse history, encompassing the Catholic Church’s defense of Native Americans, the significance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the North American Martyrs and St. Junípero. He also profiled strong women who helped shape Catholicism in North America, such as Jeanne Mance and Mother Marie of the Incarnation, who helped found Montreal; Venerable Maria of Agreda, a cloistered Carmelite who miraculously evangelized Texas and New Mexico; and St. Kateri Tekakwitha and her Iroquois Catholic sisterhood, whom he compared to reverend mothers. Major themes include religious freedom and the freedom to worship, as well as how missionaries handled divorce, remarriage and polygamy among Native Americans.

Starr summed up his book by saying, “That’s where we came from, a long, dramatic story filled with triumph and tragedy. It’s a historical tribute to the evangelical impulse in Catholic culture.”

“The history of Catholicism in America is not simply Catholic history,” he added. “It is American history. There can be no understanding of American culture and history without an understanding of the role played by Catholic peoples in the American experience. As they seek renewal, American Catholics need to regain their sense of being a historical people. American Catholics do not have to repudiate or vitiate their faith traditions to be acceptable Americans. Still, a recognition of the Church’s achievements and failures on this continent is fundamental.

“It is time for American Catholics to repossess and learn from the story of their North American pilgrimage — and for Americans of every persuasion to come to a better understanding of each other.”

Anna Abbott writes from

Napa, California.