Living Hope Newsletter – May 2024

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On a Mission

With the passing of time, family trees and preserving histories are such an important contribution to current generations, and generations to come. Sometimes it takes just one or two people curious enough to seek and write the stories, to discover the connections, the “who was who.” A similar sense for capturing “family history” exists for the Claretian Missionaries. The stories of the priests, brothers, and the many people they serve are documented in various ways, yet not in a thorough written history.

Finding just the right author for that project may seem daunting, but a special grace has inspired author Deborah Kanter, who recognizes along with the Claretians, that no book-length history of the Claretians in the United States exists, and very much deserves to be written.

Her book, On a Mission: Claretians and the Creation of a National Latino Ministry, 1902-2022, will be published in 2025 (New York University Press).

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“Taking on this project excites me because I can explore many untold stories of Latino communities across the country,” she says. Dr. Kanter is professor emeritus of history at Albion College, where she taught Latin American, Latino, and immigration history—history that is essential to telling the Claretian story, so rooted in its founding in Spain and its long service among Spanish-speaking communities in the United States.

Dr. Kanter’s Claretian connection is longstanding, positioning her to dive even deeper into their history for the new book. A Chicago native, she lived and worked in Mexico for over four years. She has written two books with Mexican and Mexican American emphasis, including one anchored at the Claretians’ St. Francis of Assisi parish in Chicago. She worked in the US Claretian archives and has interviewed many Mexican American people who grew up with the Claretians. “The Claretians’ devotion to Mexican people was apparent, often heroic,” she says.

Readers will get to know the Claretians both as a congregation and as individuals. Among their ranks are writers and photographers, some with a passion for cartooning or birdwatching, for example. In the earliest decades, Claretians were immigrants to the United States who had to learn English and American customs to carry out their mission here. Today, the Claretians’ international missionary outreach is unmistakable, with many priests and brothers coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

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Let’s start at the very beginning . . .

The US Claretian Missionary story begins in 1902, when the Spanish-born priests and brothers came to work in impoverished barrios and isolated ranches in Texas. The Claretians followed the Mexican population as they moved north, establishing missions and parishes in Arizona, California, and Chicago.

Claretian outreach impacted wider Catholic America as they created seminaries, established popular Catholic magazines, fostered devotion to St. Jude, and maintained missions in Panama, the Philippines, and Guatemala. With their Spanish language skills and familiarity with Latin American faith needs, Claretians were well positioned to serve Latino people. In many ways, they have circled back to their original mission: Claretians remain committed to generation after generation of immigrants and their children.

My book tells two connected stories: that of the priests and brothers and also of the lay communities they have served,” Dr. Kanter says. It is a facet of the book that grasps the essence of the Claretian mission. “I have been fortunate to visit parishes across the country that are current or former Claretian parishes,” she says of her research. “It is fascinating to see the Claretian stamp on places where they worked for decades.”

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Deep in Research

Research for the book requires following all kinds of stories. Claretian archives maintain an extensive photo collection, much of which is digitized, as well as more archival information at Catholic University and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “All of those photos spark my curiosity,” says Dr. Kanter.

She is especially fascinated with her research on the Claretians’ junior seminaries, including the St. Jude Seminary in Momence, Illinois. “Why would priests from Spain build a seminary on the prairie? Why did eighth-grade boys enroll there, and how did they evolve over the next four years?” she wonders, as she explores.

Speaking with Claretians for her research about why they wanted to do Hispanic ministry, Dr. Kanter says, “They laughed, recalling that as boys they were drawn to the Claretians because they thought of missionary work as working in distant lands.” But for most, this meant domestic ministry with Latino people in Chicago, New Jersey, or California.

“The Claretian missions in Central America also fascinate me,” she says. The Claretians arrived in Guatemala in the late 1960s, an era of great change for the Catholic church in the United States, globally, and especially in Latin America, with its shift to experimenting and acting in a spirit of liberation. “The US Claretians recognized the human potential in Guatemalan people of different ethnicities,” she says. “They helped individuals find voice, communities to build infrastructure. Together, they created church.”

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This history is American History

Dr. Kanter and the Claretians are excited about the rich history that readers will gain from the book. “Readers will experience a sense of the many faces of Latino Catholic life in the past century. While Latinos comprise about half of Catholic laypeople in this country, that story remains under-documented,” she says. “So, this is also a vital way to explore American history.”