A Cure for “Historical Amnesia” {The American Catholic Almanac Blog Tour}

With apologies to Jane Austen, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I love and admire Emily Stimpson.

I’ve reviewed her books before here and here , and she was a “Reader” back around the time of the 2012 Behold Conference, where I first met Emily in person (photos to prove it in the link). To use another literary reference, Emily is definitely a “kindred spirit,” and I’m happy to claim her as a local author since she has roots in the Peoria Diocese and many of her family still lives here.

Headshot Living Room

So that’s why I’m delighted for Reading Catholic to be a stop on the blog tour for The American Catholic Almanac by Emily Stimpson and Brian Burch.  My review of the book appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post and will post here in a few days. 

Thank you, Emily, for doing this Q&A, and for this great new book.

NP: Tell me a little more about your book, your co-author, and the writing process. How did you decide to write the book?

ES: Credit for the idea behind the book goes to Brian Burch and the Catholic Vote team, particularly Josh Mercer and Kara Mone. In the wake of the HHS Mandate and recent court rulings on same-sex marriage, many Catholics were justifiably concerned about government-imposed limitations of their religious freedom. But many more Catholics didn’t seem concerned at all. There was a lot of shoulder shrugging.

On top of that, more and more Americans have been questioning the Church’s place in the public square, seeing the Church (and faith itself) as a threat to democracy. Brian believed part of that problem stemmed from a sort of historical amnesia.

As American Catholics, we’ve forgotten our story: why our ancestors came here, how they sacrificed to establish the Catholic Church in America, and how much they contributed to the growth of this country.

The hope was that by re-telling our family story—in a fun, interesting, and accessible way—we could help Catholics (and all people of good will) both appreciate what the Church has done and work more vigorously to protect it.

As for the writing process, that’s where I came in. Brian approached me to work with him because I’m a storyteller, and he thought my voice could help set the right tone for the book. As I said, we didn’t want to write dry history; we wanted to tell stories that did justice to the great men and women who nurtured the Faith in America. Anyhow, I felt incredibly blessed to be asked to participate and jumped in with both feet.

After that, the actual writing process began with our fantastic research assistant, Tom Crowe, who organized the calendar and supplied us with materials to read. Then, I wrote the first draft for each month. As each individual month was complete, it went to Brian for review and revision. From there, it went on to Random House, then back to Brian, and finally back to me, so that I could smooth out everyone’s changes and ensure that the book didn’t sound like a committee wrote it.

When I explain the process like that, it sounds so sane. But it wasn’t. Everything was happening at once—filling in dates on the calendar, writing new entries, revising old ones, reviewing proofs, even designing the book cover. It was a massive undertaking, but we’re so proud of the end result.

NP: There’s such a variety of Catholics profiled, from Catholics as varied as singer Perry Como to Alexis de Tocqueville, to Rose Hawthorne, to concepts like the Act of Toleration. How did you come up with so many great entries?

ES: Again, Tom Crowe deserves a lot of the credit. He started by identifying the biggies—America’s saints, blessed, and venerables—as well as other key people and events in American Catholic history. Then Brian and I chimed in with more ideas. After that, as we researched and read, we kept identifying more interesting things to cover.

For example, while researching an early court case in New York about the inviolability of the seal of the Confessional, an off-hand mention of “Mrs. Mattingly’s miracle” piqued our curiosity, so we did some more research and discovered a fascinating tale of a miraculous healing that had been coordinated by an American priest and German prince via trans-Atlantic postal mail in 1823. How could we not write about that?

At another point, in the course of researching Terrence Mattingly, one of the great Catholic labor leaders, we found out that the original Mother Jones was also Catholic. And of course, we had to include her story! That’s how it went every step of the way. One interesting story led to another interesting story and before you knew it, we had more interesting stories than we could possibly include in just one book.

NP: You featured not just canonized saints or universally loved Catholics and events in American history, but also some controversial (either mildly or wildly) Catholics and events. It seems to me you don’t whitewash or downplay the controversy. Why was it important to you to share the good, the bad and the ugly here?

ES: Well, as James Joyce wrote, Catholic means, “Here comes everybody.” We’re not just a Church of saints. We’re a Church of sinners as well, and those sinners had a hand in shaping our history, too, for good and bad. To only tell the good parts would only be telling half the story.

Even more fundamentally, though, very few of us are all saint or all sinner. We’re a messy combination of both. And when we look at the last-minute conversions of men like Buffalo Bill, John Wayne, or Dutch Schultz or the tragic loss of faith experienced by someone like General William Tecumseh Sherman or even the mess of contradictions in the lives of Mother Jones, Andy Warhol, and Al Capone, we understand ourselves better. We understand grace better, and get a glimpse of what God can do through even the weakest of his children.

NP: Do you have a favorite entry?

ES: Oh gosh, that’s like asking if I have a favorite child. I enjoy the writing in this book far more than any decent person should enjoy their own work. I definitely have favorite people I met along the way, people to whom I now turn regularly for their prayers. Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, the first bishop of Denver, is one. He reminds me of an evangelizing Yellow Labrador— ever faithful, endlessly enthusiastic, and completely devoted to everyone he served.

Father Peter Whelan, who saved thousands of men’s lives in Andersonville Prison during the American Civil War, is another. I think the actual entries that I enjoy the most, however, are the ones where there’s either some sneaky, understated humor (like the November 30 entry on America’s first Catholic martyr, Father Juan de Padilla) or the entries where we found ways to shine new light on already well-known figures like Dorothy Day and Walker Percy.

NP: As I read through the book, I found myself thinking of who would be in a future, 50 or 100 years from now, version of The American Catholic Almanac, and what current pioneers might be included. I hope you won’t be embarrassed if I included you in there, with your books on a variety of topics and your passionate commitment to sharing our Catholic faith in honest and realistic ways. Are there people or events you wished you could have included in the Almanac?

ES: If I am among the best someone could come up with for some future Almanac, Nancy, the Church is in more serious trouble than I realized!

I will admit, though, that was one of the reasons I was pleased we included Katherine Burton in the Almanac. She was a Catholic convert and freelance writer, who was absolutely prolific throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. She wasn’t a great writer, and almost nothing of hers remains in print, but she wrote a lot and she wrote well on a wide range of topics, particularly women’s place in the world. She’s a terrific example of a faithful, ordinary Catholic trying her best to help her contemporaries know and love the Faith—a patron “saint” for Catholic hack writers like myself, I suppose.

As for other stories, yes! There were so many we couldn’t tell, simply because of space limitations. Likewise, we wanted everything attached in some way to a date, and on some days 10 interesting things happened. On others, we were lucky to find one thing. That means people like our newest Blessed, Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, and the religious sister who took on Billy the Kid, Blandina Segale, didn’t make it in. But hopefully, the Almanac will just inspire people to go out and do more reading on their own.

NP: What is your next project?

ES: Brian has this crazy plan to maybe do a second volume of The American Catholic Almanac, but we need to see how this one goes first. In the meantime, I’m getting ready to start writing a travel column for The Boston Globe’s new Catholic website, Crux.

That’s particularly exciting for me because it’s going to give me the chance to write a bit more about some of the people and places covered in the Almanac and visit those places as well. I’m afraid this Almanac has turned me into the crazy Catholic trivia lady. I’ll probably be annoying people for the rest of my life with the odd facts and fun stories I’ve learned this past year!

2 thoughts on “A Cure for “Historical Amnesia” {The American Catholic Almanac Blog Tour}”

  1. Wonderful interview, Nancy! I really enjoyed the book as well and reading Emily’s insights was very interesting. Thank you!

    PS – Emily Stimpson is so impressive to me. When I met her at Behold I was so badly wanting to make a good impression that I made a horrible one. She is a truly wonderful writer.

    1. Oh, Bonnie, I know what you mean about not making a good impression on Emily. I still remember standing next to Emily’s table that morning of Behold, and spilling a large amount of my mocha on Marcia M. Marcia has forgiven me, since she was wearing dark clothes that day. 🙂 And probably Emily does not remember it at all. I’m just in awe of how prolific she is as a writer.

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