“For you were as sheep going astray; but you are now converted
to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (St. Peter)
Like its predecessor, Roads to Rome, this book would not have been written but for the encouragement of the late Fr. Stanley Jaki, OSB (1924-2009). It was he who encouraged me to write on the topic of converts to the Catholic Church. His main reason for doing so was his belief that the Church was neglecting this issue and this was at a serious cost.
Fr. Jaki’s initial idea was for a simple register of the names of people who had “gone over to Rome,” rather on the lines of that compiled in Great Britain by W. Gordon Gorman under the title Converts to Rome and in the United States by D. J. Scannell-O’Neill in his book Distinguished Converts to Rome in America.
Books on converts have taken various forms. They range from simple lists, as in the two cases above, through detailed autobiographical works by individuals, collections of several convert stories put together, to sophisticated analyses of the mental process of conversion. I began by compiling four short booklets. Three of these concentrated on Great Britain and Ireland in the 20th century, 19th century, and 18th and earlier centuries respectively, with very short accounts of individual notable converts. I then put together a similar booklet on notable converts from Judaism. The preparation of these was accompanied by a request to readers to suggest further names.
The feedback that resulted, and the further research that followed on, certainly contributed greatly to the enlargement of the list of candidates for inclusion, plus the information available about them. It also led to an appreciation on my part of the potential value of accounts of converts from the perspective of apologetics and the defense of the Catholic faith. Converts had in many cases gone to great trouble in arriving at their decisions to become Catholic and powerful arguments, not always in a form accessible to readers today (many of the accounts were out of print), were often presented. Certainly, to return for a moment to the views put to me by Fr,. Jaki, the subject of apologetics was one that was neglected for a quite lengthy period of time after the Second Vatican Council. This was perhaps due, at least in part, to the fact that subjectivist and relativist accounts of the faith were in vogue at that time. Things have changed and in recent years, perhaps due in part to attacks on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, leveled by the “New Atheists”, attempts have been made to put forward apologias that are much better grounded, both philosophically and historic ally. Certainly, Benedict XVI’s papacy was marked by his endeavors to scotch the joint hydra of subjectivism and relativism. For whatever reason there has certainly been a return recently to more objective and well referenced arguments as to why an individual should become a Christian and, in particular, a Catholic.
On the basis of this the present writer put together a much more detailed and extensive account of notable converts from Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the present day in the aforesaid Roads to Rome, published in 2010. The present book is an attempt to do an equivalent text for North American converts, meaning the United States and Canada.
So what are the criteria for inclusion in this book, bearing in mind the above statement and also the fact that the book is meant to be a definitive reference text? Well, this all depends, it is submitted, on what is understood by the term “notable” in this context. To begin with, it is obvious that certain individuals would have to be included, irrespective of whether or not they have contributed to a defense of the Catholic faith by writing about their reasons for their conversion. These are those who are clearly notable in every sense. No book on American converts to the Catholic Church could be written without the inclusion, for example, of Saint Elizabeth Seton or Orestes Brownson. Of course, very famous converts have in any case frequently written about their reasons for converting, although some have not done so in detail.
Most converts are not famous, though they may be quite well known, usually because of their role on the public stage as politicians, writers, artists, and such. These also have a reasonable claim for inclusion, whether or not they have gone into print about what brought them into the Church. Again, however, in many cases stimulating accounts of their Romeward path are available, if only in obscure sources very often. These should be brought into the light and this book is hopefully a vehicle for that.
In addition, there are two other categories. If apologetics, or the defense of the faith, is an important factor, and it is submitted that it is, then whether one is well known or not would seem to be irrelevant. What is important is the quality of the arguments for converting that are being put forward. This has resulted in my having to make a judgment in each case and this has been done, though with some trepidation and in several cases only after consulting respected colleagues. Many are the reasons put forward for a person becoming a Catholic and different things appeal to different persons. The Catholic faith has a wealth of riches and therefore motivating factors can come in many different forms. As that great convert G. K. Chesterton stated, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” In addition, although the Catholic faith consists of a definitive set of doctrines, and truth does not change, different factors appeal at different times. If the Church is to go forward, these factors need to be tapped into. They may come from many directions, but basically they stem from philosophy (reasoned argument) or historical factors. It is submitted by the present writer that arguments from reason, say for the existence of God, put forward by many philosophers are very compelling. Take for instance the words of Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP:
The universe in continual process of motion and other changes cannot exist and continue in change unless there is an unchanging First Cause, that is intelligent, free, and thus personal, God, otherwise science and all rational thought would be impossible.
An other modern thinker, Professor Charles Rice, puts the essential point vigorously and with more than a touch of humor:
The fact is, it is unreasonable – even stupid – not to believe in God, the eternal Being who always existed and had no beginning. To deny this we must say instead that there was a time when there was absolutely nothing. And we therefore must say that something can come from nothing. Actress Julie Andrews, in the motion picture, The Sound of Music, had it right: “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could.” If there was ever a time when there was nothing, there could never be anything. If we think hard about this, it will blow our minds. And change our lives.
But some come to the faith after an examination of the historical evidence. This also provides us with strong grounds for belief. The person who claims that the Gospels are a set of lies and that Christ did not perform his miracles, including the Resurrection, should surely acknowledge that if this is the case then Christianity is the most brilliant hoax ever. The Catholic writer Dennis Sewell, in discussing some words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, explains this line of thought:
To deny Christ’s Resurrection implies that everything from the Easter morning to the Ascension had to be made up by the groveling enthusiasts as part of their plan to get themselves martyred. No meeting along the road to Emmaus, no Doubting Thomas, no fishing trip to Tiberias. If Christ’s followers were indeed fabricators of evidence, why would they make up these stories, in all their puzzling complexity and, let’s face it, intimacy of scale?
In other words, it is much easier to accept that Christ rose from the dead than that a complicated and unlikely conspiracy was put together by his disciples.
Then there is the incomparable impact on history of Christ himself and his unparalleled character and personality that surely leads on to something more. Fr. Jaki takes this phenomenon and sets it in a particular historical example:
No greater impact has been made on countless humans through an impact originally made on so few. The measure of that impact found an incomparable expression in a remark which Talleyrand, a priest turned diplomat, addressed to Larevalliere-Lepeaux, a member of the Directorate, who thought up a religion, called “Theophilanthropia.” On finding that he gained no adherents to it, he complained to Talleyrand, who then gave him the best conceivable advice: “If you want to make converts perform miracles. Cure the sick, revive the dead, allow yourself to be crucified and rise on the third day.”
When it comes to the Church itself, history is very clear on another point. This is that the Catholic Church is the only Church existing today which goes back to the time of Christ. How strange it is that so many miss the obviousness of this point. And then there is the simple fact of the endurance of the Church, and in circumstances that make this very fact utterly astonishing. The French-American writer Julien Green drew inspiration from such reasoning and brings this out so clearly:
It is not the saints that one has to talk about if one is to prove the sanctity of the Church. It’s bad priests and popes. A Church governed by saints continues on, that’s normal and human. But a Church that can be governed by villains and imbeciles, and still continue, that is neither normal nor human.
This may seem a negative way to establish a positive conclusion. If this is so, we must remember to take account also of the positive witness of the galaxy of great saints nurtured under the aegis of the Church. This factor operating a particular historical period made a firm impression on one of the greatest of all converts, Blessed John Henry Newman:
The outburst of Saints in 1500-1600 after the monstrous corruption seems to me one of the great arguments for Christianity. It is the third marvellous phenomenon in its history; the conversion of the Roman Empire, the reaction under Hildebrand, the resurrection under Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Vincent de Sales and a host of others. Think of the contrast between Alexander VI and Pius V, think of the Cardinals of the beginning, and then those of the end of the 16th century.
However, it must be remembered that not all of us are led to change our fundamental philosophy of life because of strictly logical reasoning or the strength of historical witness. In any case, it is God’s ineffable grace that is crucial in all cases and this is extended to all who come to him with a genuine heart and in good faith. Conversion is also not always about Catholic dogma and doctrines. Many converts emphasize more the attractions of Catholic practices, art, and culture, and also the feature of beauty. In addition, as human beings we are all moved by humble and courageous actions performed in conditions of adversity. We see in such cases examples worthy to be followed. The case of the British scientist Frank Sherwood Taylor is in point here:
I was fortunate enough to fall in quite separately with two Catholics of personal qualities which throw some light on what Christianity in action could be – and this, in my belief, is an essential in almost every conversion. If a man or woman goes about the world being charitable, humble yet inflexible in the faith, and radiating sanctity to those who have eyes to see it, the people who meet them will find their difficulties disappearing and will tumble one after another into the laver of regeneration. I suspect that one Living Christian is worth a shop full of hortatory treatises or an army of eloquent preachers.
All of these later things are, it is submitted, also relevant to the process of choice of who to include in a book of this kind. Several persons given space in this book come to be there because of actions that move the heart.
The choice of who to include, even with the above criteria having been adopted, is not always easy. There are several marginal cases and decisions have been made after much thought and discussion. A line has to be drawn at some point and this can give rise to difficult decisions. On a lighter note, however, it may be said that the choice of persons now deceased is much easier than that of those still with us. After all, the dead are unable to complain (at least in my present hearing) at being excluded! Decisions about the living may be more difficult, since the important factor of the passage of time in making judgments on such matters may not apply in their case. The living may also be much more voluble potentially in stating their opinions. What I would say is that I have tried to be objective in my choices and have taken advice from many who may well have more knowledge on this question than myself, a mere Englishman not as familiar as he should be in relation to the American scene.
Although the arguments for the Catholic faith don’t change fundamentally, it is the case that in different eras certain issues are seen as more significant and important and others less so. This explains why a book of this kind, aiming at arguments for the defense of the faith at the present time, will sometimes involve relatively lengthy quotations from the writings of persons alive and working today, whose arguments may sometimes have a persuasive effect greater than those of an earlier era. This is not to say that previous generations cannot provide forceful accounts for conversion, examples of such being available on almost every page. Another relevant factor is that historically the contribution of some persons has been somewhat neglected, notable examples being those of Justine Bayard Ward, David Goldstein, Edward Lee Greene, James Kent Stone (“Fr. Fidelis”) and Horatio Robinson Storer. I have tried to redress the balance here.
Some of the persons dealt with in this book have associations with more than one country. I have tended to adopt an intuitive approach to whether they should be classified as “American”. One important factor I see to be their final nationality. Where a person has, say, been born in Europe, but spent the greater part of their lives in America, I have included them, even where they have not formally become United States (or, of course, Canadian) citizens. Naturalization is taken as evidence of how they wanted to be seen, unless there is evidence to the contrary. Even with these principles there are still marginal cases, but this is inevitable.
I should add at once that the list of entries is in no way seen as complete and irreformable. It is hoped that this volume will at some stage give way to a second edition. The process of conversion to the Church will go on and this will mean more potential entrants. In addition, it would be a foolhardy person who would claim to have noted all the potential notable entrants from the past. I would ask, then, for the assistance of readers who may well know of candidates, both living and dead, who should be included and I am supplying an e-mail address for this purpose. This is john.beaumont7 at virgin.net. In this context, it is worth noting that a second edition of the earlier book will appear shortly in a much more extensive version, thanks in an important sense to responses from readers.
I would venture to make a few “technical” points. Each entry refers first of all to the main activity of the person in question. It then gives a date and place of birth, conversion and death, where these are known. This is followed by a factual biographical account of the person, including, of course, some consideration of the circumstances of and reasons for their conversion where these are known. It should be said that where the person is very well known, the biographical facts do not go into great detail. In fact, more detail is often given in cases where the subject is less well known, as the reader is likely to be less familiar with him or her and therefore in need of such. In each entry reference is then given to any writing by them and about them. The order of this last section is that I deal firstly with writing which is either exclusively written by the entrant, or where they have contributed in a major way (say, in the case of an interview). These references are done in chronological order. The references to writings about them by third parties are also done in date order, except that general works, e.g., encyclopedias, standard reference books, and accounts of multiple converts, are given at the end of the entry, as are unpublished materials. Sometimes the reading list has to be selective, because of the extent of such references. In such cases preference is given to those writings that are most closely linked with the aims of this book as set out above.
There are many quotations, some pretty extensive. In many ways these are the most important parts of the book. They give, where available, accounts of the direct reasons for conversion. In addition, where a person writes powerfully about what might be termed indirect apologetics, e.g., a compelling account of a particular Catholic doctrine or a very effective rebuttal of an attack on the Catholic position, I try to include this. The reason is, as with the other quotations, that it makes the reader more able to defend his or her faith in Christ and the Church.
Not all of the entries relate necessarily to what might be termed “good” people. Some may have fallen away from the faith after espousing it. Some may have had difficulties in certain areas. For instance, not a few of them went through several “marital” relationships, whether or not these were recognized by the Church. One entrant (Dutch Schultz) is referred to as a mobster and certainly he murdered a number of people. Some may criticize the choice of such a person, which ironically is just what Catholics did in the case in question, where the person converted on his deathbed after a wicked life, was baptized, died shortly afterwards, was buried in a Catholic cemetery, and thereby perhaps (we don’t know, of course, whether the actions were genuine) did what is sometimes referred to as “stealing heaven”. However, there as elsewhere, the Church had good grounds for the actions of the priest in question. These were set out by another priest, and it is valuable for us to read this account and know how to approach such issues.
I have defined “convert” to include “revert”, a term often used to refer to those originally raised Catholic, who then, for whatever reason, fell away from the faith, but later returned into full communion with the Church. They have therefore made a similar step to those traditionally thought of as converts and their grounds for doing so are equally worthy of consideration.
An expression of gratitude is merited to all those who have committed their convert stories to print over the years. A special expression of thanks must go, in the context of America, to the redoubtable Georgina Pell Curtis (1859-1922) for her sterling efforts to bring to public attention a large number of converts in her two books, Some Roads to Rome in America (1909) and Beyond the Road to Rome (1914). These are both sadly now long out of print, but the present work, which has included several of the entries therein, will help to bring some of their contents back into the public domain.
I am particularly grateful to Fr. McCloskey for agreeing to write the foreword to this book, but also for his very valuable afterword. This, it is submitted, fits perfectly into the overall scheme of the book in that it gives valuable advice on how the reader may use the arguments for the faith contained in the text in the vital apostolate of evangelization.
Finally, it is to be hoped that readers will not consider this book to be elitist in the sense that it only contains “notable” converts. The present writer is all too well aware that there is no difference in merit between converts. All depend upon the grace of God for the privilege they have been granted. It is hoped that no apology is needed and that there is nothing more to be said on this matter.
Every endeavor has been made to make the text and references as up to date as possible. Any errors and omissions are entirely due to my own negligence. In this respect I am consoled by some words of Blessed John Henry Newman, namely: “Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited until he could do it so well no one would find fault with it.”
I hope the reader will gain as much pleasure in reading this book as the present writer has done in putting together the materials.
Feast of St. Bernadette
16th April 2013