Date of Award

Spring 2015

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lucy E. Salyer

Second Advisor

Eliga H. Gould

Third Advisor

J. William Harris


This study uncovers the religious and ethnic history of northern New England- Maine and Vermont- which has remained for too long on the periphery of scholars’ attention. In 1836, the Vermont Catholic missionary priest Jeremiah O’Callaghan warned members of the New England Catholic Church that “our own Catholicks (are) every where scattered in the woods,” writing not only of the hostile outside Protestant world faced by Catholics in Vermont during the nineteenth century, but also of the difficulty of ministering to such a geographically removed or “scattered” rural population. Still today, the story of these northern New England Catholics that O’Callaghan found so hard to reach remains invisible to historians. The extensive literature on the history of the American Catholic Church maintains a strict geographic and ethnic focus. It rarely ventures into the northern borderlands, focusing instead on the more central city of Boston, the apparent site of New England Catholicism’s “birth” with the arrival of Irish Famine-era immigrants.

Yet, I argue that well before Boston emerged as the powerful center of New England Catholicism, rural Catholics, independent missionaries, and struggling bishops built the Catholic religion in the northern borderlands despite a dire lack of resources and a crippling absence of central authority. In close proximity to Canada, French-Canadian, Native American, and English-speaking Catholics lived in a malleable religious world, one not divided by the firm parish, diocesan, or national boundaries that would later come to define the structure of American Catholicism. An Irish-led, urban-centered, geographically rigid model of “American Catholicism” was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, before this time, the very idea of “American” Catholicism was a fluid one. New England Catholicism’s expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century owed as much to the practice of the religion in Canada and the northern borderlands as it did to Irish immigration.

Drawing on frontier and borderlands studies, my dissertation is situated within an increasingly important historical framework that allows us to reconsider the rigidity of national boundaries and instead envision a broader idea of American history. Here, the story of the borderlands’ connection with Canada suggests that “American Catholicism” is more correctly “North American Catholicism.” This dissertation moves away from a limiting or “parish boundaries” concept of ethnic and institutional history, describing instead a transnational, open region where Catholic laity and clergy alike shaped their faith to fit their needs, despite (or even because of) living on the institutional and geographic margins of both the United States and the Catholic Church. Evidence in the form of personal diaries and correspondence between early bishops and missionary priests shows that northern New England was home to many Catholics in need of sacraments long before the expansion of Boston Irish Catholicism.