By any standard, Catholicism in America would be considerably less lustrous, and its impact upon Catholics and society less impressive, were it not for a series of persons who, in adulthood, decided to convert to the Catholic Faith.
The republic was young, and anti-Catholicism strong, when Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), a New England intellectual, born and bred as a Protestant, entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1844. Always a layman, Brownson was a prolific writer and public speaker. His contribution to the religious debate of the time was his ability to convince others by the sheer soundness of his reasoning, which did very much to remove from the minds of many American Protestants, if they were intellectually honest, the notion that Catholic theology was a mishmash of superstitions and distortions of revelation.
Another soaring figure of those times was Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888). Reared a Protestant, Hecker came under Brownson’s spell. In 1844, Hecker was baptized a Catholic. He joined the Redemptorists, and in 1849 he was ordained a priest. In the United States of Hecker’s day, Protestant values governed everything: politics, social mores and commerce. The population, overwhelmingly, was Protestant.
Specifically to bring Catholicism to this Protestant world, Father Hecker left the Redemptorists and formed a new community of men religious, the Paulist Fathers, to preach, defend and explain the Catholic Church to American Protestants.
Decades later, another convert increased Catholicism’s acceptance in this country by promulgating the richness of its spiritual legacy. Born in France and baptized as an Anglican, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) did many things before he converted to Catholicism in 1938. Eventually, he entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky and was ordained a priest in 1949.
In the following years, he became, arguably, America’s best-known author of books and articles on spiritual topics. Even Protestant congregations studied his writings. Ill in his later life, he was attracted to his nurse, but he was faithful to his monastic vow of chastity and to his priestly celibacy. He is buried at his monastery.
Not all of the great converts were men. Rose Hawthorne (1851-1926), daughter of the great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a Protestant, a wife and a mother. She and her husband joined the Catholic Church in 1891. (He died in 1898.) Long involved in serving the poor, she eventually founded a community of nuns, the Hawthorne Dominicans, with special concern for terminally ill poor. Mother Alphonsa was her religious name.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985) was a Russian aristocrat, born into the Orthodox Church. She fled the Russian Revolution, finally settling in this country. Entering the Catholic faith, she vowed to give her life to the Church, although she was never a nun. Deeply committed to assuring justice and dignity for the poor, she founded Friendship House, an apostolate of lay Catholics.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was born to a nominally Christian couple. As a young woman, she attended a New York Episcopal Church. She met Pierre Maurin, a French philosopher and social activist (once a nonpracticing Catholic) whose reading of the Church Fathers and of St. Francis of Assisi led him to champion the rights of the poor.
Day became a Catholic, and with Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker movement. She was very controversial, especially in the Cold War era, but at her death she was lauded for confronting American Catholics with the true, profound meaning of their religion.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.