New England-Catholic Catholics: The First in New England

       Americans have been taught that the first European settlements in the New England area were those of the Protestant Pilgrims (1620-Massachusetts, 1623-New Hampshire) and Puritans (1630-Massachusetts). But this is factually incorrect. Catholics from Scotland, Ireland, and France, had landed and settled in areas of today's New England region years before the English Protestants arrived. We will now look at the little-known facts concerning these early Catholic expeditions and the settlements which resulted from them.

5th-6th Century: Irish Catholic Missionaries

      There are numerous rock carvings, called petroglyphs, that have been discovered and translated which provide evidence (proof, actually!) that Irish Catholic missionaries came to America long before Columbus did. One petroglyph found in New Hampshire gives evidence that a monk and his companions arrived to these shores during the reign of Pope St. Simplicius (468-483), or even earlier during the time of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461). This particular petroglyph, written in ancient Keltic, has been dated from around the middle of the 5th century. The message carved on the large rock is one that gives praise to Christ the Lord. We know nothing of the fate of these early missionaries to America, but there is evidence that they made contacts with the local Indians, and ancestors of these natives kept alive the memory of that contact, for they informed early French explorers of such legends.

-St. Brendan and the Irish Monks

       We do know the identity of another group of early Irish Catholic missionaries who came to America. It was St. Brendan, known later as "the Navigator," and his band of Irish monks. St. Brendan was born in Ireland around the turn of the 6th century and died about the year 578. He and his monks had come to America in obedience to Christ's command to make disciples of all nations, to bring conversions to the true Faith and to baptize (See Gospel of St. Matthew, chap.28, vs.19-20).

      Sometime between the years 560 and 570, that is, probably during the reign of Pope John III (561-574), St. Brendan and a group of his monks crossed the Atlantic and planted the Cross of Christ upon this land 900 years before Columbus. It appears that they landed near present-day New Salem, New Hampshire. There are ancient stone ruins that are believed to have been built by St. Brendan's Irish monks. (The above-mentioned petroglyph found in New Hampshire might well have been from St. Brendan's expedition, especially since the dating of these rocks is not an exact science.)

       There also is evidence that indicates that St. Brendan and his fellow monks traveled along the coast of America. We know this about St. Brendan because he wrote down the details of his expedition, including descriptions of the places he saw and landed, and the directions of where he traveled. This work is his epic saga known as "The Navigations of St. Brendan the Abbot." The work was widely read and became quite popular in the Middle Ages. It was translated into a number of European languages. It would be false to think that knowledge of his voyage was lost. In 1893, an Irish priest, the Reverend Denis O'Donoghue, wrote a popular book about the voyage, entitled: St. Brendan the Voyager.

       Though some secular scholars doubted the truth about his voyage to America (as if a saint made such an extravagant lie!), it has been demonstrated that St. Brendan must have in fact made the voyage. In 1976-77, Tim Severin, an expert on exploration, set out to prove whether or not the claims of St. Brendan were in fact true. He did so by following the instructions written in the "Navigations." Severin built a hide-covered curragh -the type of vessel used by the Irish in the 6th century- and then sailed it according to the directions provided by St. Brendan. He sailed from Ireland to present-day New England by way of Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and then headed along the coast, then across the sea after visiting some islands, stopping in the Azores, then back to Ireland. Severin confirmed that each place was accurately described by St. Brendan (an impossibility if the voyage was a myth). The details of this trip which demonstrate the accuracy and veracity of the directions and descriptions provided by St. Brendan can be found in Severin's book, The Brendan Voyage: New York, 1978.

1000: Catholic Norsemen

       Some time during the ninth century Viking explorers, who had already sailed to Greenland, sailed farther westward over the ocean and reached the northeastern coast of North America. On their return they reported finding land. But this resulted in no further known trips or any settlements.

       Nearly 200 years later more Norsemen came to this land by way of a northern route from Europe. What many do not know is that Leif Ericson was a Catholic Norseman. He was the son of Eric the Red, the famous Viking leader. Ericson was converted to Christianity around the year 1000. He became a devout and faithful Catholic. During the reign of Pope Silvester II (999-1003), while he was voyaging to Iceland in the North Atlantic, Ericsonís ship was caught in a terrible gale (a fiercely strong wind) and transported all the way to America. He explored the coastline from Nova Scotia down to what is now known as Cape Cod. He named the area Vineland (Vinland or Wineland) because of the many excellent grapes that grew there. The grapes were used to make wine. We call this area today New England. What most people have never heard is that Leif Ericson had missionary monks with him on the ship. He wrote an account of his voyage just as St. Brendan had of his own voyage.

       According to Ericson's account, the "Vinland Saga," the native Indians the Norse encountered on the north-east coast of North America told them of white, bearded men in the interior, who wore robes and carried beads and crosses in procession. Could these have been memories of contact with the monks from St. Brendanís expedition, or a reference to some recently arrived? We do not know. Nevertheless, this report gives us more evidence that there were Catholic missionaries from Europe here before the Norsemen arrived around the year 1,000.

       For years it was thought that sometime before the year 1400 other Catholic Norsemen arrived and came down the coast and landed in present-day Rhode Island. They had at least one priest with them and came in contact with the Pequot Indians. It appears that they built dwellings that were of more than just a temporary nature. In fact, a fortified church was built at Newport indicating that they dwelt there for quite some time. For years nothing else was known about this expedition or the fate of those who settled there. The remains of the church tower at Newport, and the foundations of the nave, can still be seen (from the air). It may be the oldest existing edifice of Europeans in the Americas, and it was part of a Catholic church. (We will see that these remains belong to the settlement established by the Norse-Scottish prince Henry St. Clair, who arrived in the late 1390s.)

1398: Scottish-Norse Catholics

       What the vast majority of Americans do not know about are the settlements of a Scottish-Norse expedition in the late 14th century -nearly one hundred years before Columbus made his voyage.

      In the 1360's a Norse-Scottish prince named Henry St. Clair (or Sinclair), with help from the Knights Templar, established authority in the Orkney and Shetland Islands just north of Scotland. He became known as the first Earl of Orkney.
      Prince Henry was a devout Catholic knight who was healed as a child at the shrine of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Scotland. He was thus devoted to St. Katherine and his piety is evident from the annotations of spiritual maxims found in his own Missal, and this can be seen today in the Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. He was known as a just ruler.

      The islands he ruled had been settled by Norsemen centuries earlier, and no doubt the knowledge concerning lands west which the Vikings had visited were still known. In fact, present-day Canada was already known back then as Labrador. At the same time, Scottish and Irish stories about St. Brendan and his voyage were still known. Inspired by such stories, Prince Henry decided to head an expedition to those lands known as Labrador. The evidence shows that sometime between 1390 and 1399, during the reign of Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404), St. Clair, with some Venetian sailors, some of the Knights Templar, and a few monks, sailed to America and landed in present-day Nova Scotia. Specifically, they landed on the south coast of today's Cape Breton Island. This spot has been identified as Louisberg Harbor. They called the land Estotilanda.

      After landing, they came into contact with the Micmac Indian Tribe and established friendly relations. In fact, the Micmacs highly respected Prince Henry and his men. They were taught by the Scotsmen how to fish with nets using sinkers and floats, instead of only with spears. Apparently, the monks made efforts to evangelize the Indians who were not hostile to the Gospel of Christ. We know this because when the French first encountered the Micmac in the early 17th century they found a number of the natives open to the Gospel and having already heard of the Christian God, as if the seeds of the Faith were planted by the missionaries of the St. Clair party. In fact, the Micmacs had mentioned to the French of their knowledge of Prince Henry St. Clair, whom they called "Glooscap" (or Kuloskap) in the Micmac language. By the time the French encountered them, the Micmacs had a legend about "Glooscap" that he would one day return to them.

      There is much solid evidence for the truth of this expedition and its settlements. Ruins and artifacts of this settlement, including cannons and petroglyphs, have been found in the south part of Cape Breton Island and are dated from the 14th century. The cannons were the very type used by both Scottish and Venetians on their ships of that time, but by no one else.

      There also is strong evidence that the St. Clair party sailed farther down the coast and established another settlement at what is today Newport, Rhode Island. The remains of a stone tower, adjoined to a church (the outline of a nave can be seen from the air), give evidence of this settlement as being more than a temporary one. The design of this tower, with its eight arches within a round tower was very rare. It is known in only two other places in the Western world. Yet, there is one exactly like it in Scotland. That one was built in the 12th century and is in Orphir in Orkney! (Remember, Prince Henry St. Clair was the Earl of Orkney.) The Scottish Church tower was modeled after the only other one in existence -that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Thus, the only examples of this unique tower-structure outside of Jerusalem are in Orkney and in present-day Newport, Rhode Island: the two places where there are records of Prince Henry St. Clair, the Earl of Orkney. Today this is known as the Newport tower, and it is the oldest standing European structure in America.

      Other evidence is this: in Rosslyn Chapel, where Henry St. Clair's annotated missal is housed, there are numerous images of American corn-on-the-cob (Zaya mays) carved into the stonework. Yet the chapel dates from the late 12th century (with modifications made around the turn of the 15th), and Europeans did not know of this corn until the end of the 15th century when Columbus brought some back. It is native to neither the British Isles or to the European mainland. The stone masons who carved it must have somehow been made aware of it, and appreciated it enough to carve them into the chapel's stonework! Yet, this makes sense when seen in light of Henry St. Clair's expedition in the late 14th century.

       Part of the evidence which shows the authenticity of the Prince Henry St. Clair expedition/settlements is a map made by one of the Venetian sailors of the expedition. This map, known as the Zeno Map (made by the Zeno brothers, Nicolo and Antonio), pictures the northern Atlantic region with Iceland, Greenland, and includes part of the eastern coast of present-day Canada and New England. On the map are marked the two places that were settled by the members of the St. Clair expedition. The mark for the area identified as Rhode Island shows a tower, like that of the one found in Newport. This map was discovered in the 1530s and became a standard reference map upon which later maps during the 1500s were copied. Other evidence for the truth of this presentation is a petroglyph found on a rock not many miles from Newport. On this large rock is a detailed carving of the coat of arms of the Sinclairs (the family of Henry St. Clair).

      Naturally, one might be curious about what happened to the members of the St. Clair expedition. Well, after being away from Orkney for a little more than two years, Prince Henry decided to return. Settlers were left at each of the settlements (one monk for each). Unfortunately, Prince Henry was killed in late 1400 defending his land from an invasion by the greedy King Henry IV of England. St.Clair never had time to organize and send a relief ship to re-supply the colonists. As already mentioned, the Micmacs had a legend about Prince Henry, known as "Gooscap," and that he would one day return. We know now that he never did.

      The fate of the remainder of the colonists also is not known. However, in the Spring of 1524, while Verrazzano was sailing along the east coast of America, he and his men recorded that when they came to what is today Rhode Island they reported two significant facts: 1) they reported seeing a stone tower, 2) that, unlike the other natives they had seen, the report states: "This is the most beautiful people and the most civilized in customs that we have found on this navigation. They are of a light bronze color, some inclining more to whiteness." This suggests evidence that at least some of the remaining Scottish settlers of the Prince Henry St. Clair expedition had eventually intermarried with the local natives and civilized some of them (possibly converting some). Well over a century later their mixed-blood descendants were seen by Verrazzano and his men.

1570: French Catholics

       An expedition left France for the New World right at year's end, 1569. The French ship, with a missionary priest on it, arrived on the New England coast in late winter 1570. They knew this area as "Norumbega." This expedition was inspired by Jacques Cartier's earlier one in 1535. Heading ten to twelve miles up a river, they disembarked and claimed the land for France. The expedition erected a small fort on a spot nearly surrounded by fresh water. This river has now been identified as the Kennebec River in today's Maine.

    The missionary priest on this expedition was a Franciscan, Father Andrew Thevet. He was a cosmographer to Charles XI (1560-74), the King of France. It is he who, after returning in 1575, submitted a report of the expedition to King Henry III (1574-89), who knew nothing of it. Father Thevet had identified the area as Norembega. We know it now to be Maine. This report is still extant and is located in France's national archives. The fate of these French-Catholic settlers is not known.

    However, the report of Fr. Thevet was published and made known in England by 1580. We know this because there is record of English Catholics wanting to come to "Norembega" as a place of refuge. The project was headed by two Catholics, Sir George Peckham and Sir Thomas Gerard. (Fr. Thevet's report and the name "Norembega" is mentioned in a letter by Peckham.) Sadly, it never succeeded as an expedition to found a colony of refuge for Catholics, the anti-Catholic Queen Elizabeth I condemned such an idea. That said, nevertheless, in June of 1583, a small fleet under the direction of Sir Humphrey Gilbert was organized and, with some Catholics included, sailed to Newfoundland. Peckham had arranged with Gilbert for a number of Catholics to sail with the colonists.(We have a record of a letter Glibert wrote to Peckham of their landing in Newfoundland.) Then, one of the ships, named Delight, presumably the one with the Catholics on it, sailed south towards Norembega (today's Maine). Unfortunately, a severe storm wrecked the ship and most on board perished, including Gilbert. But the rest were rescued by a Spanish ship that was passing through the area. The survivors eventually made it back to England to tell of the story.

    We also have independent evidence that confirms Father Thevet's report. In 1607, Sir John Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges of the English sponsored Plymouth Company had tried to plant a colony on the mouth of the Kennebec River, but could not succeed for they were not prepared for the harsh winters of the region. When they returned to England, however, they reported that they had "found traces of Frenchmen," including a large cross planted not far from the mouth of today's Kennebec (a French and Spanish Catholic custom). They also reported that they had learned from the local Abenaki Indians that these Frenchmen had made efforts to teach the natives the truths of the "French religion" (i.e. the Catholic Faith) as they put it. (No doubt, Father Thevet had pursued his duty as a missionary priest.) Thus, we have a French report from 1575 on record; a record in England of knowledge of this report (and a planned expedition based upon it); another English report from 1607-08 on record, and testimony from native Indians of the area that Catholic Frenchmen had explored and settled in New England, particularly Maine, some time in the early part of the 1570s.

16th Century Catholic Fishing Expeditions

       Most know that in 1603 Samuel de Champlain claimed Canada for France. However, most do not know that he reported to have encountered a fishing vessel in Tor Bay, Nova Scotia. The captain of the ship, named Savalette, stated that he had crossed the Atlantic from his home Port (he was from St. Jean de Luz, France) to this region "every year for forty years," and knew of this fishing spot from his father, who in turn learned of it from his father. Other French fishing ships also had been making the same trip for decades. This report of Champlain was verified by another French explorer named Marc Lescarbot. That means that Savalette had been coming to North America since the early 1560's, his father before then, and his grandfather before then. This would put those trips beginning sometime around the end of the 15th century, and who knows from whom his grandfather learned of this fishing hot spot. This report is indirectly confirmed by Jacques Cartier. When he came to the region in 1535, he reported that he found "several ships from France and Brittany," which were fishing vessels. He was told that some of the ships had been making the fishing trip for many years. Cartier, who is credited with "discovering" St. Pierre Island off the south coast of Newfoundland, implied that he did not actually name the island, but that it had already been named by these French fishermen years before he sighted the island. This fact confirms also that these were not Huguenots, but Catholic Frenchmen. What we can learn from these reports is that there was a clear pattern established of regular crossings of the Atlantic previous to those of accepted explorers.

1604: French Catholic Mission-Settlement

       Another fact concerning Champlain's expedition that is not well known is that in early summer of 1604 he sailed farther down the coast and up a river which is now the border between Maine and New Brunswick. He named the river Sainte Croix (Holy Cross) in honor of Our Lord and landed on an island he gave the same name (today it is called De Monts Island). With him and his party was a missionary priest, Father Nicholas Aubrey. They built a small fort and a chapel, and also named the settlement/ mission Sainte Croix. The first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in Maine occurred at this time. They spent the winter of 1604-05 in this location. However, since the winter had been so harsh, by Spring of 1605 the mission/settlement was abandoned for lack of proper supplies to survive such conditions. Disappointed, they headed back to France. (Champlain would return in 1608, but went up the St. Lawrence River -named by him- and established Quebec.)

1607: English Protestants Attempt Settlement

       In late summer of 1607, the first English colony attempted by the Plymouth Company, under the leadership of George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert, was planted at the mouth of the Kennebec River. The colonists were thoroughly discouraged by the severe winter of 1607-1608 and returned to England. They reported the fact of a (Catholic) French presence in the region.

1611: French Catholic Mission-Settlement

       In 1611, during the reign of Pope Paul V (1605-21), a new and better supplied French expedition arrived in the upper New England area, and with it were three Jesuit missionaries, two priests and a brother. As soon as they landed on Mount Desert Island in Maine, they planted a cross, gave thanks, then Father Peter Biard, S.J., offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They moved a bit farther around and built a mission just up from the mouth of the Penobscot River. They named the mission Holy Savior. It consisted of a chapel, a residence, and school building. Indian conversions from the Abnaki Tribe (or Abenaki) soon ocurred.

       One day while on the main land Father Biard heard the sounds of crying coming from an Abenaki (or Abnaki) village. He investigated and saw an Indian brave holding his dying infant child in his arms. The whole village gathered around the brave and his child in loud sympathy. Seeing that the child was near death, Fr. Biard baptized the babe and prayed for his recovery. His prayer was heard! The baby was healed and all were amazed at the miracle. This was the first known baptism administered in all of New England. The villagers then regarded Fr. Biard as a messenger from Heaven. The natives were open to hearing Father Biard proclaim the True Faith to them. Soon a good number of them rejected their false gods, believed in the true God and were baptized.

       Sadly, the mission would not remain long. News of Catholic Frenchmen settling in New England reached the Protestant English colonists farther south in Jamestown, Virginia. In September of 1612, an English ship under the leadership of the bigoted and infamous Captain Samuel Argal sailed up from Virginia and attacked and destroyed Holy Savior Mission. On the 13th, Brother Gilbert de Thut, S.J., was killed in the attack, and both priests, Fathers Biard and Enemond Masse, and some Catholic Abnaki converts were taken prisoner and forced into slave labor for the Jamestown colony. The other Indian converts of Maine were hunted down like animals simply because they professed the Catholic Faith!

       As an aside: Not long after, other missions were established in Maine by Capuchins (Franciscans) and Jesuits in 1633 and 1646 respectively. These had tremendous success among both the Abenaki and Penobscot tribes resulting in thousands of conversions and the establishment of all-Catholic Indian villages. In 1684, Father Louis P. Thury came from Quebec to labor among the Penobscot Indians. His work among them was blessed by God and many conversions and baptisms resulted. In 1688, Father Thury built the Church of St. Ann at Panawaniski (Indian for Oldtown). This church exists to this day and is the oldest parish in New England. It is one of the few not destroyed by English protestants. But these missions and most of the Catholic Indian villages were attacked and destroyed by English Protestants in the early 1720's. Both missionaries and Catholic Indians, including women and children, were murdered. However, despite the destruction caused by English Protestants, many places in northern areas still bear their original Catholic names: Saint John River, and the towns of Saint Martins, St. Joseph, St. Anthony, St. Leonard, St. Basil, St. Ignace (Ignatius) and others.

1620: English Protestants (the Pilgrims)

      In December, 1620, Protestant Pilgrims arrived at Massachusetts. However, in 1614, the Cape Cod area (explored by the Catholic Estaban Gomez in 1525 and named Cape of St. Mary by him) was explored and mapped by Captain John Smith of Jamestown. He named the entire area New England. In 1623, a group led by David Thomson split with the Plymouth settlers and moved north to present-day New Hampshire and first settled at Litte Harbor (today's Rye). It is on record that some of these settlers in New Hampshire had learned from the local Indians that years earlier Frenchmen had already arrived and made efforts to teach the natives the "popish religion" as these settlers expressed it. This provides more evidence of a Catholic French presence in New England previous to the coming of the Protestant Pilgrims.

1666, Vermont:

       Catholics were also the first to both explore Vermont (Champlain did so in 1609), as well as the first to settle there. There is a record of a Franciscan missionary evangelizing the hills between Lake Champlain and present-day St. Albans. In the summer of 1615, he offered Holy Mass in this region, the first offered in what was to become Vermont. He had come upon an Indian village where an old and respected Indian maiden who was severely ill. She had already heard of the holy man and had wanted him to come see her. The priest preached the Gospel of Our Lord to her and she joyfully accepted it. She converted and, with other Indians looking on, was baptized on the spot. She died soon after, and the priest gave her a Christian burial on one of the hills just east of the lake. It was the first known Christian burial in Vermont.

       In 1666, under the leadership of Captain La Motte, French Catholics built the fort and shrine of St. Anne on present-day Isle La Motte. It was here that Father Dollier de Cassion, S.S., offered the first Holy Mass within an established settlement in Vermont. In 1667, Bishop Laval, Vicar Apostolic of New France, came to the settlement and administered the Sacrament of Confirmation. This was the first visit by a Bishop to New England. (The first English-Protestant settlement was an outpost built in 1690, called Chimney Point [present-day Addison], by Captain Jacobus de Warm.)

       All in all, the facts concerning Catholic exploration and settlement in the New England region are well established, yet have been suppressed and left out of establishment U.S. history books. It is time that the crime of cheating students of these facts is corrected.

                                                                                                                                                                 -Adam S. Miller

(Taken from the soon-to-be published Journey America: Pathways to the Present, Marian Publications, Inc.)

-The Brendan Voyage, Tim Severin (New York, 1978)
-The Catholic Pioneers of America, John O'Kane Murray (Philadelphia, PA: H. L. Kilner Co., 1882)
-Documents of American Catholic History, John Tracy Ellis (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1956)
-Our Catholic Heritage, By a Benedictine Monk (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1950)
-Prince Henry Sinclair: His Expedition to the New World in 1398, Frederick J. Pohl (New York, 1974)
-Saga America, Barry Fell (New York, Times Books, 1980)

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