When the going gets tough, the tough get going, or so goes the saying. In these turbulent times of ecclesial crisis, a flashback to the early days of the Catholic Church in America—days in which plenty of tough folks faced plenty of tough goings—would serve well to remind us that, even in the most dire of circumstances, God’s grace remains ever-present and efficacious in the lives of his faithful. The work of salvation always marches onward.
Like all stories of sanctity, this one begins with a choice. As the Founding Fathers worked to ratify our Constitution, a Marylander named Edward Fenwick chose the novitiate of the Order of Preachers over the typical array of prestigious options awaiting a wealthy, foreign-educated, young American. The remainder of his life would be a novel-esque interplay between God’s enduring fidelity and Fenwick’s rugged courage and apostolic fervor.
Born in 1768—this year marks his 250th birthday—Fenwick began his Dominican and priestly formation at Bornheim College, Belgium in 1789. While he had completed his secondary studies at Bornheim without hiccup, the near-constant unrest from the tremors of the French Revolution greatly hampered the progress of his priestly formation. After his ordination in 1793, a quick stint in a prison at the hands of revolutionaries, and several years of teaching in England, Fenwick longed to return to his fatherland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the preaching charism of the Friars.
Upon receiving permission to establish a Dominican foundation in the United States, Fenwick was sent by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore to the Kentucky frontier, where settlements of Catholics numbered in the several thousand and priests assigned to minister numbered at one. Obedient and zealous, Fenwick, joined by two conferes, charged west, where in 1806 they founded our very own Province of St. Joseph, the first Dominican province in the United States, and began a vigorous ministry to the sacramentally undernourished across the region.
It was there, over the next 15 years, that Fenwick truly came into his own as a priest and missionary. In time, he became, as they called him, “an itinerant preacher,” the very essence of the Dominican vocation. Traversing miles and miles of “vast and inhospitable forests, wherein not even a trace of road is to be seen,” Fenwick reported once to a friend:
“Many times, overtaken by night, I am obliged to hitch my horse to a tree and making my saddle a pillow I recommend myself to God and go to sleep with bears on all sides. However, Our Lord in his mercy lightens for me these trying experiences, and sweetens them with very sensible consolations.”
He soon traveled north into Ohio, desiring to attend to its some 500,000 souls, all without a single priest among them. Father Fenwick helped build the first churches in the state and became known for his “zeal and humility” with a “turn truly admirable for making converts.”
As the numbers of Catholics in Ohio increased, the need for a local bishop grew pressing. The unassuming Father Fenwick—founder of the Catholic Church in Ohio—was the obvious choice, though much to his displeasure. He had long maintained a keen awareness of his own human limitations, feeling that his want of proper theological training in Belgium was a significant hindrance to his priesthood.
Despite such significant doubts about his worthiness, Fenwick would hold nothing back in his years as bishop of Cincinnati. When the diocese was strapped for funds, he went all the way to Europe to petition for aid. When he needed suitable men to serve as missionaries on the front lines, he asked for those “who solicit nothing, whom a straw bed, food and garments of the coarsest kind quite satisfy, ready to attend the sick by night and day, who have no fear of danger nor fatigue.” He dealt patiently with the acerbic anti-Catholic persecution of the Protestant elites in Cincinnati and dispatched swiftly with errant and unfaithful priests, particularly those who had violated their vows of chastity—a prevalent temptation in the lonesome wilderness. And when the US Government’s policy of “Indian Removal” threatened the spiritual and material livelihood of Native Americans, Bishop Fenwick made unfailing efforts to procure funds for them and send priests, even ministering to them himself, all the way up to the limits of American territory in Mackinac.
As of late, the Church has suffered gravely from the public and private moral failings of its shepherds. Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick’s life manifests the holiness, spiritual paternity, and apostolic zeal to which Christ calls his priests and bishops. His witness also reminds us that it is always God’s grace that makes possible a heroic life, lest we repeat the Edenic error of deifying ourselves.
In his waning days, fatigued by the cholera he had contracted on yet another journey north to the Natives—and still insisting on his inadequacies as a Dominican and a bishop—Fenwick traveled home by coach with an old friend who was one of his first converts from Kentucky. At sunset, they stopped at an inn to receive care from physicians and prayed for endurance through the night. The next morning, 186 years ago this very day, laying in bed with only his convert friend beside him, Fenwick reached out his arms and cried out for the last time, “Come, let us go to Calvary!” Fitting, indeed, for the great frontier apostle, consecrated totally to the Toughest One, to lay his final hope at the foot of that place where the Going Got Toughest. In these tough goings, may we do the same.
Image: J. W. Winder, Father Fenwick’s Discovering of the First Catholics in Ohio