A Catholic patriot

Before the jet aircraft, travelers wishing to cross the Atlantic generally relied on the many luxurious passenger ships sailing between Europe and the United States. Before World War II, Italian ships had been among the fastest, most splendid and comfortable vessels on the Atlantic. Most of these ships were lost in the war.

Hoping to recover past glory, the premier Italian shipping company in the Atlantic market, the Italian Line, in 1951 launched two magnificent liners, both named to flatter Americans. The first was the Cristoforo Colombo. The other was the Andrea Doria. (It sank in 1956 after a collision at sea.)

Many presumed the Andrea Doria was named to honor a prominent 16th-century Italian mariner. Actually, its name had a more directly American connection.

In November 1776, the newly formed United States struggled to mount a naval presence to protect the country from any onslaught of the mighty Royal Navy, the British power at sea that was the most formidable armed force on any ocean.

Among the ships the United States put into service was the Andrew Doria, undoubtedly named for the Italian seaman. It made history when it entered the port of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean in the fall of 1776. Dutch officials on the island fired a salute, being the first time an established foreign power saluted the American flag. It was a milestone, and Americans whooped that their revolution might actually succeed.

Commanding the Andrew Doria was the son of an old Maryland Catholic family, Joshua Barney, only 17 at the time. His youth made him well-known, but so did his dedication to American independence.

Barney’s life reads like a thriller. Eventually, he captured British ships, was himself captured by the British, fought in innumerable battles, and succeeded in the task of commanding ships when the United States had few resources.

In a word, he was a patriot. He made a name for himself again in the War of 1812. In 1814 he transferred to the army to repel the British invaders. His unit held back British soldiers long enough to allow President James Madison and other high government officials to escape Washington before the invaders arrived.

Barney died in 1818 in Pittsburgh as he was on the way to Kentucky. A memorial to him stands in Washington, D.C. He is considered one of this country’s great naval heroes.

He was one of a number of Catholics who were dedicated Americans when the country was new. Others were Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence; Daniel Carroll and Thomas Fitzsimons, who signed the Constitution; John Fitzgerald, George Washington’s personal secretary; the future Archbishop John Carroll, who was part of a diplomatic mission sent by Congress to Canada; Father Pierre Gibault and others.

Two factors, now generally forgotten, strongly influenced the situation at the time. Nothing assured American success in its fight against Britain. All the odds lay with the British. In the 13 colonies, Catholics were very few, and they lived in a very anti-Catholic atmosphere. Some even would have argued that life would be better for Catholics if the British had repelled the Revolution.

Yet, despite any arguments to the contrary, Catholics were among the most devoted patriots when the country was taking shape. Catholics throughout the nation’s history have been patriots. Tens of thousands have died in wars. Most of all, Catholics have enriched the society. So, not surprisingly, American Catholics enthusiastically will celebrate independence on July Fourth. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.