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Catholic Pasts and Imperial Futures

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In 1896, a tourist named Edward Jones was arrested in Washington, D.C., detained for threatening to attack a public statue with a broadax.

Jones’s act sounds oddly contemporary. In 2019, we witnessed attacks on Confederate statues, a statue of the iconic WWII-era soldier kissing a nurse, a statue of Christopher Columbus, and a statue of baseball great Jackie Robinson, to name only a few. Even this short list suggests how various the motivations behind such actions are. But, taken together, they raise important questions: Who deserves commemoration? What are monuments meant to teach us, not so much about who their subjects were, but about who we are… or at least who we ought to be? We fight over these questions today, just as Jones did almost 125 years ago.

Who deserves commemoration? What are monuments meant to teach us, not so much about who their subjects were, but about who we are . . . or at least who we ought to be?

But if Jones’s act is a familiar one, the concern that motivated him has been largely forgotten: he was trying to keep a monument to a Roman Catholic missionary out of the nation’s capitol. After Wisconsin had commissioned a statue of the French Jesuit Jacques Marquette—known for exploring the upper Mississippi in 1673—anti-Catholic newspapers and organizations raised a national hue and cry. Plans for an elaborate unveiling of the Marquette statue were scrapped. It was installed silently overnight, and an around-the-clock guard was employed to protect it from people like Jones.

Ultimately, however, Jones and his allies failed. In St. Louis, where I live, you can drive down Marquette Avenue, live in the Marquette Apartments, attend Marquette High School, or play tennis at Marquette Park. Well beyond St. Louis, Marquette’s name or figure came to grace monuments, buildings, streets, towns, a university, and even a US postage stamp. And—much to the horror of people like Jones—Marquette wasn’t the only Catholic missionary to be so honored. In the years between the Civil War and the Second World War, Americans dedicated public monuments of all kinds to historical Catholic missionaries, from Marquette in the Midwest to the Franciscan Junípero Serra in California, to the Augustinian Andrés de Urdaneta in US-controlled Manila. And, vitally, it was not only or even primarily American Catholics who raised these monuments. In an era characterized by recurrent eruptions of anti-Catholicism, many American Protestants championed Catholic missionaries as founding heroes.

In an era characterized by recurrent eruptions of anti-Catholicism, many American Protestants championed Catholic missionaries as founding heroes.

Why did they do this? And for what, exactly, were they honoring men like Marquette? My book, The Imperial Church: Catholic Founding Fathers and United States Empire, seeks to answer these questions. I argue that widespread and cross-confessional celebrations of historical Catholic missionaries in the Midwest, Southern California, and the US colonial Philippines can tell us two important things about religion and American public discourse.

The first is that debates over commemorative culture in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era were a key way that Americans fought over the question of Catholic inclusion. Even while Jones was threatening to mutilate a statue of Marquette, other Protestants were deriding anti-Catholicism as un-American bigotry, arguing that no thoughtful person—Protestant or Catholic—should be immune from feeling the “admiration and esteem” that historical Catholic missionaries inspired.

Second, in celebrating men like Marquette, Serra, and Urdaneta as heroes and founding figures, American Protestants and Catholics came together to celebrate a particular vision of the US as a “civilizing” empire. They compared Catholic missionaries favorably to the Puritans and American Revolutionaries. They cast the missionaries as gentle and effective agents of conquest, uplift, and economic growth: forerunners of present-day empire builders. Against narratives of US history that stressed British origins and anti-colonial rebellion, celebrations of Catholic missionaries as founding fathers described the modern United States as product and inheritor of a centuries-long, global, cross-confessional, European Christianizing and civilizing project.

Statues are never just statues.

Statues are never just statues. In The Imperial Church, they tell us about the complex history of American anti-Catholicism and religious pluralism, and about the role of religion in the rhetoric of American empire. Edward Jones’s broadax proved to be a weak weapon against a much larger movement: in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as the United States consolidated its continental dominion, acquired overseas colonies, and laid the foundation for a global empire of production and commerce, Protestant and Catholic Americans began to celebrate Catholic imperial pasts as origins and models for the American imperial present and future.


Katherine Moran is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Her research focuses on religion in modern American culture, with a particular emphasis on the changing place of the US in the world.  


Photo credits:

The statue of Jacques Marquette that enraged Edward Jones. It still stands in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, DC, one of two statues representing Wisconsin. In 1931, a statue of Saint Junípero Serra was added to the collection, representing California.

Gaetano Trentanove, sculptor. The text on the pedestal reads: “WISCONSIN’S TRIBUTE. JAMES MARQUETTE, S.J., WHO, WITH LOUIS JOLIET, DISCOVERED THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER AT PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, WIS., JUNE 17, 1673.” (Undated photograph, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Archives.

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