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Academic tome doesn't disappoint in describing home missionary work


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"Catholic Borderlands: Mapping Catholicism onto American Empire, 1905-1935" by Anne M. Martinez. (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2014). 293 pp., $70.

It is evident from the author's 29-page introduction why the publisher classified this book as history, American studies and religion. It could not have been written had Anne M. Martinez not drawn from and meticulously annexed those three disciplines in providing readers an education likely to be found, at minimum, in a college course.

In the opening pages of the introduction, readers receive a clear indication of just how academically involved this text is when Martinez defines the Catholic borderlands as a "trans-imperial, transhistorical space built on the Spanish Catholic past but enhanced by U.S. Catholic presence in the early 20th century."

A key player in this era was the Catholic Church Extension Society and its founder, Father -- later, Bishop -- Francis Clement Kelley. From his base in Chicago, he established Extension as the primary organization for providing financial assistance to the home missions. That assistance came from the millions of Catholic readers of Extension Magazine, many of whom lived in the Northeast, and whose primary information about domestic mission work was filtered through the pages of the publication. The stories focused on missionary priests and religious working to establish and/or maintain churches and schools for Mexicans who had been driven from their worn-torn country, for Native American tribes that populated the Southwest, and blacks in the South.

Often using Father Kelley's own words and those of writers for his magazine, Martinez captures the paternalistic approach to missionaries' "saving souls" that was the norm in that era.

But the church was not the lone element with which Father Kelley had to contend. He used the pages of his magazine to attack the U.S. government's recognition of Mexican governments that did not protect the church, particularly Catholic clergy who were imprisoned or escaped the country.

He enlisted readers to support Extension's work, lest Protestant proselytizers in native and borderland communities. With his organization and a magazine publishing the narratives of missionaries "in the field," along with his reputation and position as representative of the Mexican Catholic Church in the United States, Father Kelley "mapped Catholicism into the cultural geography of the U.S. Southwest, a Catholic borderlands," according to Martinez. And mapped it further, too, as Catholic missionary efforts also reached Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Reading "Catholic Borderlands" in an era when Catholic missionary work is packaged and promoted as part of "the new evangelization" provides a view -- wide and deep -- for helping understand one way of how evangelization efforts for the church in the U.S. have evolved during the past 100 years. While it will appeal primarily to an academic audience already familiar with the topic, it can serve as a help to those who ask, "Where have we been? Where are we going?"

Martinez does not disappoint in exploring, explaining and answering where we have been.

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Olszewski is the general manager of the Catholic Herald, publication serving the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.

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