Archivist Schmitz to track arrival, presence of Catholics at Chautauqua

One sign of arrival at Chautauqua is the gate pass, worn in a lanyard around the neck, and the happy magic it creates as it is scanned, thereby allowing entrance to the grounds.

A second kind of arrival — of an especially grander kind — is having a house: Whether individual or Institutional, a house on the grounds conveys a special sense of place.

For Catholics at Chautauqua, formal arrival and a denominational house took a long time.

Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian, will talk about the Catholic arrival at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. His lecture is titled “The Narrow Gate Pass: Chautauqua and the Catholic Church in America,” and it is part of the Heritage Lecture Series.

In a 2011 interview with Emma Morehart of The Chautauquan Daily, Schmitz said it was 1985 when Paul Anthony, a Chautauqua Catholic, and others “decided they wanted a stronger presence of Catholics on the grounds.” They wanted to attend daily Mass on the grounds, so they decided to form a group that could meet for Mass and seminars.

“As the group grew into the Catholic Community, Anthony and others began to invite guest priests each week to conduct services and seminars,” the Daily reported.

The arrival took a long time. Schmitz was clear to say, “It was not that we were deliberately excluded,” citing the early Chautauqua Assembly Sunday school policy not to exclude any Christian denomination. In 1878, in fact, the Assembly’s newspaper reported, “If any Roman Catholic sincerely desires to hold a prayer meeting here, the catholic spirit of this institution will gladly assign to him tent or temple in which to hold it.”

Although the gate was open to Catholics, few attended in the early years, and the few were very quiet, Schmitz said. Moreover, the Catholic Church warned Catholics against attending.

“The Catholic World, for example, told its readers that the [Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle] readings were essentially ‘Protestant Primer,’ and that [Chautauqua co-founder] Bishop John Heyl Vincent had a machine of great power, which week by week, put the knowledge of the Catholic Church further and further from the American people,” Schmitz said.

At the same time, Roman Catholicism was growing rapidly, becoming the largest faith group in the country by 1874, the year of the Assembly’s founding, Schmitz said.

“By the beginning of the 20th century, there were, in fact, almost twice as many Roman Catholic Americans as there were Methodist Americans,” he said.

If Chautauqua were to represent what it is to be American, it needed to include more Americans, and “this was not lost on the administration and Vincent began to forge connections with Reform Judaism, while [Theodore] Flood reached out to Roman Catholics,” Schmitz said.

Today, Catholics are the largest denomination on the grounds and regular participants on the platform and at the pulpit.

In the beginning, Chautauqua was built on shared values, Schmitz said.

“But to grow and remain relevant, it had to find a way to build a community on difference,” he said. “After all, without difference there can be no community at all.”