The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not celebrated in the Americas until some 1,500 years after Jesus first commanded, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
Yet, when the early European explorers did arrive at these shores by water, they brought Catholic priests with them.
Crucifixes firmly planted, they raised unleavened bread and repeated in Latin the words Our Savior once spoke to His closest friends: “Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum” — “This is My Body.”
They and subsequent voyagers would claim the land for kings, build settlements with churches at their centers, and wander ever more restlessly into the wilderness, bringing their faith with them.
They encountered people from the various ethnic groups who had inhabited these continents for ages before them.
With steadfast zeal, French and Spanish missionaries went out to win souls for Christ, re-evangelizing European settlers who had abandoned the practice of their faith, and proposing the Gospel to the native people who had not yet heard it.
The exotic stories, customs, rituals and spirituality of the light-skinned visitors resonated and in some cases harmonized with the sacred traditions of many of the native people.
So, too, did the missionaries’ impulse to be friends, mediators and advocates for those they befriended.
The first Mass in North America to be inscribed in the annals of history was offered in 1494 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida.
Much later, English Catholics helped to settle what would become the Maryland colony.
Future generations of Catholic settlers and evangelists helped to bring life to the Church on the Missouri frontier some two centuries later.
Some brought baptized but enslaved people with them.
Come to the water
An ocean away, a continent that had once been at least nominally united by one Christian faith was on the verge of religious schism.
At the same time, nation-states were being created, formidable navies were being built, wars were being waged, and the balance of power was being capsized.
The quest to gain an economic and strategic advantage in the “New World” complicated and accelerated these developments.
Inland waterways were the primary arteries of transportation, commerce and defense in North America.
The first Europeans to set foot in present-day Missouri and lay eyes on the Father of Waters — known today as the Mississippi River — were led by a Spaniard named Hernando De Soto.
He and his expedition of about 720 men — including Catholic priests, brothers and monks — claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for Spain in 1541.
Some 130 years later, French missionary Father Jacques Marquette joined an expedition to explore the Great River, which the native people had described to them.
The word Mississippi comes from the French Messip — a misspelling of the Algonquin name of Misiziibi (Great River).
Just south of a fur trading post that would become the seat of a great archdiocese, another vast river, which the native people referred to as Pekitanoui (now known as the Missouri), fed into the Mississippi.
In 1689, a group of explorers led by Robert Cavelier de LaSalle traversed the river from its source in present-day Wisconsin to the river’s delta, claiming the continental moat and all that lay west of it for their homeland.
De LaSalle named the territory in honor of King Louis XIV of France, a descendant of Louis IX, who had been declared a saint of the Church after his death on the way to fight in the Eighth Crusade.
In a secret treaty on Nov. 13, 1762, France ceded the strategic yet still sparsely populated Louisiana Territory to Spain, although most of the people living in the territory retained their French customs.
Also through a treaty, France and Spain ceded to Great Britain all of their holdings east of the Mississippi River.
“Throughout North America, from the time of Columbus,” noted the editors of a 1944 book titled, Album of American History, “Spanish and French priests intoned the solemn words of the Mass. It was heard on Florida beaches, along the Mississippi, in Canada, in California and in New Mexico. It was the one changeless ceremony in a world of change.”
From age to age
Missionary priests from Canada offered the first recorded Mass in Laclede’s Village, later known as St. Louis, on Dec. 8, 1698, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
“These three centuries (since then) have been a history of God’s love poured out in this part of the United States, and a history of generous response to that love,” Pope St. John Paul II noted in his homily while celebrating Mass in St. Louis in 1999.
The first Catholic parish in what is now Missouri, in the town of Ste. Genevieve on the Mississippi River, was founded sometime between 1735 and 1750.
The first parish in St. Louis was founded on Feb. 12, 1764.
The first priest to be recorded by history as baptizing and offering Mass in St. Louis was Father Sebastian Meurin.
During the Spanish possession, Catholic Christianity was the official religion of the entire Louisiana Territory, and only Catholics were permitted to settle there.
Canonically, the territory was made part of the massive Diocese of Quebec in 1680 and remained so for nearly a century.
Catholic historian Jesuit Father William B. Faherty wrote of 1776 as a “year of destiny”:
“In the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, independence from Great Britain; in Spanish California, the start of the mission of San Francisco that became the city at the Golden Gate; in the French Midwest, the planting of the Church, with the installation of Father Bernard de Limpach, the Capuchin Franciscan, as first pastor of the Church of St . Louis IX of France, the fountainhead of Catholicism in the Middle West.”
Canonical jurisdiction over the territory shifted to the Diocese of Santiago, Cuba, that year; then to Havana in 1787.
The Revolutionary War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Six years later, Pope Pius VI designated Baltimore to be the seat of the new nation’s first Roman Catholic diocese, and Bishop John Carroll became its first bishop.
More than he bargained for
In 1800, Spain ceded ownership of Louisiana to Emperor Napoleon I of France.
One historian noted: “The Spanish were of no mind to quibble when the tough little Corsican demanded the return of Louisiana. Administration of the middle valley remained with the Spanish, but the French gave the orders.”
U.S. President Thomas Jefferson feared that French control would cut off the United States’ access to the port at New Orleans, hampering the new nation’s trade and defense.
He sent diplomats to negotiate navigation rights on the Mississippi and for the purchase of New Orleans and the area along the river’s banks.
Believing that Great Britain or the United States would eventually take the Louisiana Territory by force, Napoleon agreed to sell the 828,000-square-mile expanse to the United States for $15 million.
Missouri State Historical Society Executive Director Dr. Gary Kremer recently reminded Missourians that the French had sold land that did not belong to them — “It belonged to the indigenous peoples who lived here.”
Nonetheless, Congress authorized the purchase on Oct. 21, 1803, doubling the nation’s territory at that time.
Teach, sanctify and govern
In the confusion following the Louisiana Territory’s latest change of ownership, priests and the faithful did not know where to turn for episcopal authority.
Bishop Carroll appealed to the Pope, who granted him authority to appoint a priest to serve as the administrator of Louisiana.
He chose a learned French Sulpician priest Father William Valentine DuBourg, born of French parents in Cap Français, St. Domingue, now known as Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.
Pope Pius VII appointed Fr. DuBourg to be founding bishop of Louisiana and the Floridas in 1818.
Bishop DuBourg eventually decided to make his home in St. Louis rather than in New Orleans, in order to be closer to the Native American missions, which were dear to him.
The Church in the Mississippi Valley entered an era of revival and expansion under his leadership.
He invited orders of religious priests, sisters and brothers to send missionaries to his massive diocese.
Among those who answered the call were Jesuits from Maryland, Vincentians from Rome, and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, led by Rose Philippine Duchesne (later to become St. Rose Philippine Duchesne.)
Great bands of Catholic clerics, educators, missionaries, humanitarians and evangelizers of all sorts (many whose names are now remembered by God alone) devoted their best efforts to the work of advancing the Kingdom.
In turn, God blessed and multiplied their efforts.
A Catholic priest named Father James Maxwell was serving in Ste. Genevieve when President James Madison appointed him to Missouri’s nine-member territorial legislative council in 1813. Fr. Maxwell was elected president of the council the following January.
His appointment “to the territorial legislature tended to conciliate the old French and Spanish settlers to the new American rule,” according to “A Story of Missouri,” in the 1920-21 Official Manual of the State of Missouri.
Missouri became the 24th state in the Union on Aug. 10, 1821.
Bishop DuBourg, having labored to exhaustion, returned to France in 1826 and was appointed bishop of Montauban.
As his successor, Vincentian Father Joseph Rosati was appointed to be bishop of the newly founded Diocese of St. Louis.
Father Peter R. Kenrick was appointed auxiliary bishop in 1841 and succeeded Bishop Rosati after his death in 1843.
Four years later, St. Louis became an archdiocese.
Remaining in office until 1896, Archbishop Kenrick, the “Lion of the Valley,” became — and will likely remain — the longest-serving prelate in the history of these acres of the Lord’s Vineyard.
Much of this article was originally written for Come to the Water: St. Joseph Catholic Parish, Manchester, Mo., 1865-2015.