Brokers of Culture: Italian Jesuits in the American West, 1848-1919.
In Brokers of Culture, Gerald McKevitt sets out to tell the story of Italian Jesuits and their impact on the American West--and, in so doing, to write what he calls "a book about Jesuits that is also a book about America" (xiv). Drawing on American, Italian, and British archival collections; Jesuit periodicals; and the letters, diaries, and reminiscences of the Jesuits and their contemporaries, McKevitt argues that "in the seventy-some years in which they dominated their Society's operations in the West ... the Italians ... contributed unique features to the cultural, intellectual, and religious life of the region. In the process, they themselves were changed and Americanized" (13).
McKevitt's story begins in Europe, with a description of the Society of Jesus and the persecution of the order in nineteenth-century Italy. Forced into exile during the Risorgimento, the Jesuits emigrated to other European countries, whence some eventually made their way to the United States. Most of the four hundred Jesuits who eventually claimed the United States as their home during McKevitt's time period were from the Turin and Neapolitan provinces, both of which adopted portions of the American West as mission fields. These emigrant Jesuits benefited in many ways from their institutional affiliation. For Jesuits, McKevitt writes, "travel for the sake of ministry was elevated to a virtue" (47), thus easing the psychic hardships of emigration and exile. While the religious subtext of their travels allowed Jesuits to think more positively about abandoning their natal lands, their experiences of repeated uprooting--most stopped in several locations before finally coming to rest in the West--instilled a flexibility in them that made these peregrinations easier. Most Jesuits, once they reached the U.S., spent some time on the East Coast before making their way west, providing an adjustment period in which members of the order were able to scope out the American scene. Finally, the Society's far-flung but closely connected network provided Jesuits with more complete information about their destinations, allowing them to plan better and prepare mentally for their new homes.
Jesuits who came to the United States were of two minds about the place: while some reveled in the religious freedom of America and readily transformed themselves to fit the culture they found there, others railed against the modernizing impulses that characterized their new home. The tensions between the two camps would continue throughout the Jesuits' American exile. Traditionalists, in particular, viewed Italian Jesuit life as the gold standard against which to judge the customs of the Society in other lands, and they found the American branch of the Society of Jesus deficient. To remedy this failing, they founded Woodstock College in rural Maryland to educate both American and emigrant scholastics. Woodstock "functioned as a fulcrum between Europe and the frontier," writes McKevitt, "a place of transition where missionaries-to-be perfected the skills they would need as mediators of cultures in the West" (82). Woodstock also provided a means by which Italian Jesuits could reform the American Society of Jesus, bringing it into line with its Italian progenitor. More broadly, as an intellectual center of American Catholicism, Woodstock became one of many tools Jesuits used to bring American Catholicism into greater conformity with Italian Catholicism.
Those Jesuits who eventually made their way West worked as missionaries to Native Americans in the Northwest, parish priests for Hispanic Catholics in the Southwest, and educators in California. McKevitt argues that in these labors the Jesuits proved to be neither "Romanizers [nor] Americanizers." Instead, he argues, "it is more useful to view them as intermediaries between multiple cultures" (241), the "brokers of culture" of the book's title. In making this distinction, McKevitt tries to find a way out of the accommodation/resistance dichotomy that has characterized both immigration studies and mission history. While he demonstrates the Jesuits' ambivalence--their both/and position in the face of debates and decisions about cultural and religious change in the West--McKevitt does not provide a third alternative that moves beyond the dichotomy. The Jesuits still helped Native Americans and Hispanics adapt to the culture of encroaching Anglo-Americans, even as they pushed American Catholicism into a more Roman mold.
In 1909, the California Mission, which had merged with the Rocky Mountain Mission, gained its administrative independence from the Turin Province that had adopted it as a mission field in the mid-1800s. Shortly thereafter, the Southwest Mission was divided up among the American provinces and slowly dissolved, severing the last direct administrative ties between Jesuits in the United States and Italy. As much as Italians shaped the American West, their experiences had also had effects back home: the newly reinstated Italian branch of the Society of Jesus depended on its American missions for income and used the mission fields as a way of recruiting new Jesuits. However, the link with Italy was not the only international connection of significance in shaping Western American Catholicism. For example, while many missionaries were Italian Jesuits, McKevitt writes that of the 160 priests, brothers, and scholastics associated with the Rocky Mountain Mission in 1895, only half were Italian or American. Another 40 percent were from France, Germany, Ireland, and Holland. Indeed, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Mission, Pierre Jean De Smet, was Belgian. While the Italians may have contributed disproportionately to Jesuit work in the West, McKevitt's story also reminds us that a truly international cast of characters shaped the region.
With its attention to individual stories and international connections, Brokers of Culture will be most useful to scholars of Catholic--especially Jesuit--history and missiology. In fleshing out and bringing together the story of the Jesuits in multiple Western regions, it will also be a valuable reference for students of religion in the American West more broadly.
Quincy D. Newell
University of Wyoming
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|Author:||Newell, Quincy D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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