Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson answer questions about their new book entitled, The American Catholic Almanac, a collection of inspiring stories of famous Catholic figures, their influence on American history, culture and politics, and the contributions shaped by their Catholic faith.
What was your inspiration for writing The American Catholic Almanac?
Over the past several years, we’ve watched Americans—both believers and non-believers, liberal and conservative—square off against each other on questions of faith, politics, and the place of religion in public life. Regrettably, not only has the tenor of the discussion grown increasingly hostile, but also, much of the discussion has been sadly uninformed. As a nation, we’ve forgotten so much of our history. As a Church, we’ve done the same.
While technology has afforded incredible access to information, we simply don’t know our own story any more. We don’t know so many of the men and women of deep faith who shaped our country, Church, and culture. This cultural amnesia has contributed to a tragic loss of respect and appreciation for the role of religion in American history, and the role of the Catholic Church in particular.
The truth is, there are legions of fascinating, brave, brilliant, complicated, and holy Catholics who are part of the American story. Knowing their stories 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 changes the way we see the current conflict over religion in public life and partake in conversations about it. Ultimately, in writing the American Catholic Almanac, we wanted to help Catholics celebrate the rich history of Catholicism in America, so they might write an even greater story for our future.
How is The American Catholic Almanac different from other Catholic Almanacs?
Traditionally, almanacs are mostly collections of facts and figures. These are, of course, wonderful and resourceful books. But our Almanac aspired to do something more than relay facts. We wanted to enchant our readers, to energize and inspire them. Accordingly, we decided to tell stories. Stories put you in the middle of a moment in history. They invite you into an adventure. And the American Catholic Almanac is really just one great big storybook. Day by day, as you move through the year, you become absorbed in short yet engaging stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and often inspiring 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 about as many of the fantastic men and women who made that history.
What is the most interesting piece of American Catholic history you learned while working on this book?
This is an impossible question to answer! 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 bishop of Sacramento came to California as a young man to mine for gold in the great California Gold Rush? He wanted to find enough gold to pay for his seminary formation in Europe. And he found it. Later, after he became bishop, his friends from the Gold Rush days chipped in to build Sacramento’s cathedral. Then, there was the first seminary in the United States: St. Mary’s in Baltimore. It 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, and Margaret Haughery, a penniless, illiterate widow in nineteenth-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: Archbishop Charles Seghers, who was murdered while ministering in the Alaskan wilderness; Mother Mary Lange, an African-American heiress who founded the first religious order for black Catholic women in 1829 Baltimore; remarkable converts to the Faith such as Orestes Brownson, Daniel Barber, Claude McKay, Fanny Allen, and James Kent Stone; plus tragic figures like Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Honestly, 365 days wasn’t enough to do justice to all the wonderful stories we found.
How do you see this book being used? Who is the target audience?
We don’t think there is any one way to use the book. Some people will want to read it a little bit each morning or evening, just following the day by day reading plan we’ve laid out for them. Others’ curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll read it much faster. The important thing, of course, is to read it to the end. Some of our favorite stories are in November and December.
In many ways, 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. Catholics in public life will benefit from learning more about the long history of anti-Catholicism in our country, while priests, bishops, and lay Catholics working for the Church will find the tales of America’s first evangelists incredibly instructive. There really is something for everyone in the American Catholic Almanac, including non-Catholics.
Our greatest hope, however, is that the short stories we tell in the book will inspire a deeper appreciation of the profound contributions of Catholics in American history. Before we began this project, we didn’t fully appreciate what a great blessing it is to call ourselves not Irish Catholics or French Catholics or German Catholics, but American Catholics. Now we do. The story of America would be far different if not for the faith-inspired role of the Catholic Church in America. By God’s providence, this story continues. We hope this Almanac will encourage readers to continue their own journey of discovery about our history—and to make history themselves.