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The Memoirs of Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP

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The spirit which accounted for the extraordinary expansion of America in the nineteenth century did not confine itself to influencing material growth. It also communicated an intense religious experience. Somehow–and in a way only divine knowledge can explain–God’s shadow fell on every aspect of frontier life. Among those chosen to do God’s work in America during this period was Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P. Born in Milan in 1806, he joined the Dominican Order in 1823, and by 1828 had begun his life in the United States. He took the first step of his missionary career in 1830–the year of his ordination–when he was assigned to Mackinac, an island off the northern Michigan peninsula.

These memoirs recount the first years of Father Mazzuchelli’s missionary activities, that is, from 1830 to 1843. He wrote them during a visit to his native Italy in 1843 and 1844. Hence they do not treat the final phase of his brilliant work. They are a true history, a firsthand telling of the persons, events, and characteristics of the Church during a harsh period, and even though they were written in the third person, they are noteworthy for their penetrating insights into and understanding of the various postures of Church and State.

The workings of the Republic fascinated Mazzuchelli. He provides many details of the existence of religion side-by-side with, but separate from, government. He discusses the political nature and meaning of the terms “territory” and “state.” He explains carefully how Indian lands were bought by the government, the manner in acreage was obtained by settlers, and what happened to the dispossessed Indian tribes.

But primarily, Mazzuchelli intended in his memoirs to provide a religious history, a history of the apostolate in his adopted country. To achieve his purpose, the author wrote of his relationship with the settlers, various Indian tribes, and with the Protestants in the territories of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa, and in the state of Illinois. He tells of the sacrifices and hardships the missionary must endure in order to spread the mystery of Redemption. He talks of hazardous journeys, of bitterly cold winters, of the loneliness inherent in frontier life. He recounts lively anecdotes surrounding particular conversions: he tells of building churches, giving the details of materials, used, the sizes of the structures, and the money, time, and effort expended. Debates with several Protestant ministers on the true Church take up part of his narrative.

The modern reader of Mazzuchelli’s memoirs will be delighted by the ecumenical ideas he expresses. He uses the phrase, “people of God”, he recognizes the place of the vernacular in the liturgy; he explains the necessity of simplicity in clerical dress. Both the secular and Church historian will discover valuable insights in the moods and ideals of perhaps the most important era of the history of America; for Mazzuchelli was conscious of his role as commentator. He knew that, as a man of faith and of zeal, his work would perdure for both the good of religion and the triumph of democracy.

 

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