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Catholics’ Lost Cause

Some thirty odd years ago, scholars began to peer into the world of immigrants in the South with not a little attention devoted to Catholics.  What they found surprised them.  Immigrants in the South adjusted to life in their new home with far less trouble and resistance than the folk who settled among the “saints” in New England.  Scholars of that day assumed that the relatively small numbers of immigrants in the South, compared to urban northern communities, left the natives less threatened and the immigrants more cowed.  There was not a lot of evidence to support this assumption, and it did run counter to the recorded experience of many immigrants into the South. Catholic migration into the South, primarily from Ireland, was especially puzzling.  America was and is a protestant country, yet the Irish Catholics quickly assimilated into Southern society, and more importantly, could assimilate.

Adam Tate, and other scholars, suggests a dynamic was in place that encouraged this assimilation.  The dynamic was, and is, the Southern propensity for multiple identities.  Florence King, the long-time social critic for the National Review, was fond of saying that contemporary Southerners loved their country, both of them.  It is an old phenomenon.  Robert Beverly, in his book, The History and Present State of Virginia, declared, “I am an Indian.”  When John Randolph of Roanoke visited England, he insisted on walking into the gallery of the House of Commons with the English gentry.  His hosts tried to dissuade him, but to their surprise Randolph, who deeply identified with his family’s English roots, was seen taking a seat in the gallery among the gentleman commoners of England.  In our own day, Ronald Hoffman recounts a story where a descendant of Charles Carroll the Settler informed Hoffman that he knew little and cared less about his family’s Irish past.  When Hoffman mentioned that he had met the current English protestant owner of the old Carroll estate in Ireland, the descendant of the Settler “glared” at his guest and stated, “Those people are on our land.”

Adam Tate’s account of South Carolina’s Catholics and the process of assimilation is an outstanding account of both identity formation and social integration of an important immigrant group into this most Southern of states. Mr. Tate faced several challenges in researching the book, most particularly the paucity of sources.  In part, this forced him to rely heavily upon the accounts and writings of the Catholic clergy.  I agree with him that this is no grave handicap, as the clergy, particularly the impressive Bishop John England of Charleston, were in the vanguard of Catholic efforts to build a lasting presence in the Palmetto state.  Catholics had a better time of it in South Carolina than Massachusetts, but it was by no means a bed of roses.  A dearth of clergy and resources hindered institution building, intellectual hostility and cultural prejudice against Catholics, and a daunting geography that spread the Dioceses of Charleston across the states of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Read more at Abbeville Institute 

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