Americans do not generally think of themselves in historical terms. This is perhaps especially true of Catholic Americans, given that the pieties of the imperfectly received national narrative center on Protestant heroes. What Catholic figure can rival the principal Founding Fathers in conservative esteem, or the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony for progressives? Innocence of history confers certain advantages on a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society; imported tribal feuds fade in the space of a generation, as any historian of immigration can tell you, and even the religiously orthodox embrace ecumenism in practice if not in theory. But innocence of history also impoverishes, depriving individuals of an arguably necessary sense of rootedness, meaning, and purpose. Thus the late Kevin Starr, at the outset of his wide-ranging and vividly detailed narrative: “As they seek renewal, American Catholics need to regain their sense of being a historical people.”
Starr intended Continental Ambitions to be the first in a multi-volume history of American Catholicism, one aimed at a literate popular audience as well as a scholarly one. Like nearly every historian of American Catholicism in recent decades, he wanted to demonstrate the centrality of Catholics to the American historical narrative—to show that the Catholic experience was “part of the warp and woof, the very fabric and meaning, of American life.” The earliest centuries of European presence on the North American continent provide an especially congenial setting for his purposes, since virtually all the European actors were at least nominally Catholic. Starr opens with the Vikings, visitors in the eleventh century to what are now the Canadian Maritime provinces. Leif Ericsson, who led the first of these expeditions, was apparently a recent convert to what Starr calls “Catholic Christianity,” though what passed for Catholicism in Ericsson’s native Greenland would be more or less unrecognizable today. (As in some other parts of eleventh-century Europe, Clerical celibacy was widely ignored, bishop’s sons often succeeded them, plural marriage and concubinage were tolerated of necessity.) Still, by Starr’s lights Ericsson was indisputably Catholic and he indisputably visited American soil long before any Protestants did—indeed, long before there were any Protestants.
The lion’s share of Starr’s book is given over to Spanish and French exploration and attempted settlement in what is now the United States and Canada. His vigorous style is well suited to tracing these epic feats of travel and discovery. Spaniards were the first Europeans to visit present-day Florida and its adjacent Gulf Coast, which they did as early as the 1520s; Spaniards also engaged in extensive exploration of the states now bordering Mexico, where they eventually established missions, military installations, and civilian settlements. Even before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Spanish mission system in New Mexico was expanding rapidly—a precursor to Spanish missionary activity in present-day Texas, Arizona, and California. French Catholics founded Quebec City in 1608 and were pioneer explorers of the Great Lakes region and long stretches of the Mississippi. (French was the language of my native Detroit even at the opening of the nineteenth century.) Starr’s message is clear and indisputable: Catholics got here first. Reflecting on the possibility—the surviving historical record is silent—that a Franciscan priest who accompanied a Spanish probe into present-day Kansas in 1540 may have said Mass at this remote location, Starr asserts its symbolic value for Catholic historians: such a Mass “turns into a statement about the priority of Catholicism in the unfolding history of Christianity in what later became Canada and the United States.”