Late in her life, the Vermont historian Abby Maria Hemenway recalled that, while she was a young girl in the early 1840s, she had a vision of Our Lady in a field behind her house in Ludlow. Not a common occurrence for a Yankee Baptist girl, you might think. But in fact such visions were not unknown at the time. Still very much a frontier territory, Vermont was far removed from the steadying influences of mainstream Protestantism in the more settled regions of New England, and the local religious landscape often reflected a highly unconventional aspect. So, after the Rev. John Weeks of Danville died in 1838, he was taken by an angel—named neither Virgil nor Beatrice as far as we know—on a tour of Hell and Heaven (no Purgatory—this is a Protestant story) and promptly returned to life to tell the tale. Though Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni in upstate New York, he was, like the other great Mormon founder, Brigham Young, born and reared in Vermont. So was John Humphrey Noyes, who started the Oneida Community, with its “complex marriages” (“free love,” others called it).

There are other such stories. Fanny Allen—daughter of Ethan Allen, the hero of the Green Mountain Boys, real-estate operator, and freethinking deist—was (according to one version of the story) rescued from a monster on the banks of the Onion River by the timely appearance of St. Joseph. Later educated in Montreal, she became a Catholic and joined a nursing order in that city, the first New England woman, it is said, to be a nun. By and large, though, Catholicism in Vermont was very much a nineteenth-century foreign importation, borne on the later waves of immigration from Quebec and Ireland. A network of churches and parochial schools was built, some of them Francophone, and by 1900, if not earlier, Catholics formed the largest church in Vermont. There were a number of converts as well. Decades after her vision in Ludlow, Hemenway herself joined the church, as did, among others, the Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, and Ira Dutton, a Civil War veteran, who spent his later life as Brother Joseph, working with Father Damien’s lepers on Molokai.

In a state that cultivated a self-image of sturdy Yankee individualism, Catholics, most of whom were foreign-born, often found themselves objects of suspicion and dislike. As late as the 1920s the Klan—surprisingly strong in northern New England—went after them, and in the early 1940s the church’s active encouragement of labor organization made it highly suspect in respectable circles. Yet while Catholic numbers might grow in Vermont, Christianity in general fared rather less well. A committee studying the religion of rural Vermont in 1928 was surprised to discover that the percentage of unchurched Vermonters was well above the national average. Eighty years later, a recent Pew poll shows Vermont to be the state with the lowest percentage of citizens claiming an allegiance to any formal religious tradition (New Hampshire runs it a close second). How much this reflects the state’s old-frontier traditions of deism and independence, and how much it is due to the travails of Catholicism and mainline Protestantism in the later twentieth century and beyond, it is impossible to say.

Robert Joyce, the last Vermont native to be bishop of Burlington (the diocese that encompasses the state), did much to allay remaining suspicions of Catholicism. He retired in 1971. His successor, John Marshall, came from Massachusetts via Rome, and since then Bishops Kenneth Angell and Salvatore Matano have arrived from Providence, a diocese itself hard hit by scandal (though Matano was in Washington, D.C., for five years at the nunciature before coming to Vermont). As is true elsewhere, the diocese of Burlington has been badly wounded by the continuing revelations of abuse, some of them going back to the 1940s, and it has fallen to Bishop Matano, who was consecrated in 2005, to deal with the ugly situation he inherited. Facing legal claims of something more than $20 million, the diocese has just sold its former headquarters, a large building on the shores of Lake Champlain. (On the grounds also stands a building that once housed an orphanage, from which came some hair-raising tales of abuse.)

But, as Matano says, it is the people of the diocese, not the bricks and mortar, who are important. What is happening to them? For some years, Vermont has had to cope with a decline in the number of priests, down from 274 some thirty years ago to roughly 80 today. Though some foreign priests have come, and there was one ordination this May, the fall in numbers means that parishes are being twinned, tripled, or in some cases simply closed. Meanwhile, the number of people identifying themselves as Catholic continues to decline, while those still attending Mass grow increasingly gray.

The last half-century has brought dramatic changes to Vermont, and not always to the church’s benefit. A state that had long been poor and backward, its population stagnant since the Civil War, began growing again after World War II. Helped by the interstate highway system, a new wave of immigrants arrived, those whom one local scholar calls the “marpies” (middle-aged rural professionals), largely refugees from the urban and suburban sprawl of the Middle Atlantic. When my wife and I moved here in 1966, many still seemed to identify “Democrat” with “Catholic” and “immigrant,” looking on them all with suspicion as somehow alien to the state’s imagined grand old Republican Yankee (and Protestant) traditions. But in 1963 the first Democratic governor had been elected, and the first Democratic senator—the still-serving Patrick Leahy, a strong Catholic and a graduate of the lively St. Michael’s College in Colchester—was chosen in 1972.

With the new arrivals came a different breed of Democrats, hewing to an orthodoxy often at odds with the older, homegrown version. Abortion, of course, has been a divisive issue. Vermont liberalized its own laws several years before Roe v. Wade, over strong opposition from Catholic spokesmen, and in 1985–86, Bishop Marshall opposed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it might make abortions more likely (he also voted against the bishops’ pastoral on nuclear weapons in 1982). More recently the split between Catholic and Democratic Party orthodoxy has been evident in the battles over civil unions (1999–2000) and same-sex marriage (2009), and the question of physician-assisted suicide is looming.

Today, Vermont, with a Republican governor but an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, has the reputation of being one of the most “liberal” states of the Union, and clearly this does not sit well with the Catholic leadership. Vermonters went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, and it is uncertain what attention local Catholics pay to the rear-guard actions that some of the nation’s bishops have been fighting against the administration in Washington (there was at least one church in Vermont in which the prayers of the faithful recently included an appeal to the Almighty to help defeat the health-care bill).

Thus in the face both of declining numbers (down 20 percent over the past five years, according to press reports) and of massive financial settlements ($20 million may be an appetizer for Goldman Sachs or BP, but it’s still real money in Vermont), Bishop Matano faces a difficult task in trying to re-establish Catholic fortunes. This will be all the more true as long as the church remains bound by the kinds of self-imposed constraints on which the American episcopacy still seems to rest its hopes. The monthly diocesan magazine dutifully reprints accounts of the local happenings, but gives its readers no guidance as to how they might cope with the damaging revelations of ecclesiastical wrongdoing at home and abroad. Indeed its editorial policy is reflected in the petulant and often ill-tempered effusions of its columnists (including the syndicated George Weigel). Only the sins of the flesh seem to count, and while there is talk of the need for evangelization, one wonders if the language in which the good news is too often preached will be attractive and convincing to the unchurched, the young, or those driven away in disgust by scandal. One can only guess at what the effects of the new Latinate liturgical translations will be.

Whatever Vermont’s own traditions of religion or irreligion, much of all this reflects, of course, the problems of Catholicism in America and the wider world. An optimist might hope that since most of the legal claims arising from sexual scandal have been handled, Bishop Matano and others can turn their skills and energies to rebuilding the church in this particular region. But it is not something they can do in isolation, and it seems unlikely that they are going to get much help either from the other dioceses of the country or from Rome.

Are there any signs of hope? Yes, of course. The imaginative liturgy at Weston’s Benedictine priory draws large crowds from New England and New York. Many individual churches remain lively and engaged. I think of  a priest I know who is intelligent and thoughtful, and does not hector his congregation. He tells me that for his Catholic news he depends on Commonweal and the London Tablet. And his church, at least, is well attended—well enough to draw expressions of pleased surprise from visitors.


Related: Further Adrift, by Peter Steinfels

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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