Ford Review of Greer and Blinkoff Colonial Saints Discovering the Holy in the Americas

Greer, Allan, and Jodi Bilinkoff, eds. Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500-1800. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xxii + 317. Cloth, $90.00; paper, $24.95. ISBN: 0415934966

Reviewed by John T. Ford, C.S.C.

The colonization of the Americas often took place through the combined efforts of crown and cross: the pilgrims of New England were motivated by a quest for religious freedom – quest partially aided by royal charters; similarly, the Spanish crown rewarded conquistadores with encomiendas that required their recipients to civilize and Christianize the indigenous inhabitants. Yet, even if the religion is a pervasive aspect of colonial history, most people do not automatically think of the various American colonies as locales of spirituality and sanctity. Nonetheless, such a view is supported by this volume’s fourteen essays, which were originally presentations at an academic conference at the University of Toronto in 2000.

Although the majority of the presentations focused on Latin America, there is an interesting essay on the usually over-looked Quaker martyrs of Massachusetts. More familiar to North American readers are saints like Isaac Jogues and his martyred Jesuit companions, as well as Marie de l’Incarnation and Catherine Tekakwitha. While devotion to Tekakwitha was to be expected in New France, Allan Greer’s essay points out that her biography was published in Spanish and became part of a controversy over the establishment of a convent for indias in Mexico City; the nub of the debate was whether indigenous people were really capable of observing the vows of religious life. Another interesting example of cultural clash is Dot Tuer’s discussion of “the spiritual contestation between shaman and Jesuit in the Guarani missions.”

Sometimes the quest for holiness was deliberate, such as the spiritual friendship of Francisco Losa and Gregoria López that is described by Jodi Bilinkoff. Similarly, while some practices of piety are expected, such as devotion to Rosa de Lima in Peru, others are not. Somewhat curious is the importation of devotion to St. Anthony into colonial Brazil; also unexpected is the information provided in the illustrated essay by Charlene Villaseñor Black about the devotion in Nueva España both to St. Anne and to the cinco señores (Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Anne, Joachim). Equally fascinating and also utilizing contemporary artistic depictions is Antonio Rubial García’s essay on the “disputed sainthood” of Juan de Palafox (1600-59), the controversial Bishop of Puebla and later of Osma (Spain).

The essay of Kenneth Mill describes devotion to Nuestra Señor de Guadalupe in colonial Peru, but to the virgin of Extremadura, not that of Tepeyac; devotion to the Spanish Guadalupe was promoted by Diego de Ocaña, a Jeronymte alms collector. Devotion to the Mexican Guadalupe is discussed by William B. Talor, who provides a helpful over-view of recent historical findings and concludes: “Traditions like December 9-12, 1531, as the dates of Marian apparitions to Juan Diego cannot simply be explained away with the wave of a sheaf of documents that show no December 12 feast day before the late seventeenth century, any more than other kinds of conviction that give meaning to life can be easily suppressed with circumstantial evidence” (p. 295).

In general, this collection provides a series of samples of the various forms that the quest for holiness took in the colonial Americas. Obviously most valuable for readers of this journal are those essays that treat the Spanish American colonial experience. However, only one essay directly treats religiosidad popular and that is an intriguing, but somewhat incongruous, essay on Haitian spiritualism. The basic strength of this collection lies in the data provided by the essays that investigate primary sources; unfortunately, a few essays seem strained in their efforts to analyze holiness and spirituality from sociological perspectives. Given the broad spectrum of both topics and locales, read interest in this collection will undoubtedly vary. But that very variety helps to sustain the thesis that the colonization of the Americas was not simply a matter of the imposition of cross and crown but, and perhaps surprisingly, an opportunity for realization of “the hold in the Americas.”