Stories from Catholics in rural New Hampshire

I've been traveling all over America since January, visiting red counties and telling the stories of Christians living in red counties - conservative or not - for my book Red State Christians, an examination of American religion in red counties after the 2016 Presidential election.

This past weekend was my last big research trip, though I'll be traveling to Missouri for some final interviews with a college friend next month.

While I've been to Texas three times and D.C. once, my most-recent destination was a bit more unexpected. I traveled to rural New Hampshire to meet with and tell the stories of Catholics.

the "road less traveled" in New Hampshire, miles from Robert Frost's farm

One thing I remember from my American church history courses in undergrad and seminary is the caveat that when it comes to American Christianity, the Catholic Church has long been an outlier and an enigma. It is diverse and traditional, massive and local, liberal and conservative.

 For a long time, American Catholics were seen as "other," almost exotic, foreign, or dangerous (despite the fact that my dad was brought up Catholic, and my parents were married in the Catholic Church!) When I landed at Boston's Logan Airport, one of the first things I saw was an airport exhibit dedicated to former President John F. Kennedy, Jr., a Boston native and America's first Catholic president. 

Before becoming president and a national hero, some Americans wondered if JFK's Catholicism disqualified him from becoming President. People wondered publicly if Kennedy would be loyal to the pope or to the American Constitution. In a 1960 speech to a group of ministers in Houston, Kennedy gave his famous response: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

He said these words a year after the Second Vatican Council, which liberalized the Catholic Church and entrenched it into the contemporary era, especially in the United States.

Nearly fifty-five years after Kennedy's assassination, it is unthinkable that a candidate's Catholicism would be given as a reason to question his loyalty. Catholics have become formidable in American politics. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, and Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, are both Catholic, as is former Vice President Joe Biden. Vice President Mike Pence was raised Catholic but has also called himself an Evangelical, noting the new alliance between conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals.

 Since 2009, a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices have been Catholic, including recent Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whose Catholic prep school past became a hot topic during his confirmation battle.

For decades, most American Catholic politicians were Democrats like Kennedy, often with Irish roots and ties to organized labor. Today, though, partially due to Catholicism's strong anti-abortion position, many Catholic politicians are conservative. In 2016, Donald Trump won 52 percent of Catholic votes to Clinton's 45. Among white Catholics, Trump won 60 percent. 

It was in New Hampshire, which has strong French Catholic roots, where Trump won handily in the Republican primary, setting the table for his winning of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

All that to say, while New England may be seen as a liberal bastion, New Hampshire was an important place for me to meet with New England Catholics, who belie national stereotypes about religion, politics and social issues.

Concord, N.H., where I attended Mass twice

I just got back from my trip and am still processing everything I experienced. This trip was honestly one about which I was most apprehensive. I started reaching out to people for interviews weeks ahead of time, and I was getting nowhere. I had planned to visit two small Catholic colleges in rural New Hampshire, and one admissions director told me point blank that I was not to come and even visit his campus. Other phone calls and emails went unreturned. With little arranged, I got on the plane last Saturday anyway, and flew to Boston.

After nearly puking on a wild landing, I took a long tram ride to the rental car center at Logan Airport to find that there were no rental cars available, despite my reservation. I ended up in a Chevy Equinox with a fancy navigation system that kept interfering with my phone's Google Maps, but fortunately I figured it out and was en route to New Hampshire. 

I arrived in Concord, New Hampshire's state capital, about two hours later. The scenery and changing leaves were beautiful, but I also noticed a grittiness I hadn't necessarily expected to see in New England. There were all kinds of signs and warnings and radio ads about the opioid epidemic and finding treatment programs, and I also noticed that New Hampshire had an odd tradition of putting signs for liquor stores as part of their highway signs, which usually just have gas, lodging and food. I later learned that New Hampshire has long been a state with a high incidence of alcoholism, and today its opioid epidemic is second only to West Virginia.

That evening I visited a small Catholic Church across town, sitting in the balcony and remembering when to sit, stand and kneel. I hadn't been to Mass in a long time, and Catholicism is so reliant on practice and ritual that I felt very conspicuous as an outsider, much less so than I did at the many Evangelical megachurches I'd visited elsewhere. Still, the people were kind. The homily was passionate, from a guest priest from Rwanda, and at the end of the service I listened to announcements, including one from a woman named Kathy. She led a Sanctity of Life group, and I listened as she shared passionately about the group's work to advocate against abortion, as well as against capital punishment and euthanasia. I spoke to Kathy for about an hour after church and found her compelling. I'll share more about our time together in the chapter I write for my book. But she was an important figure for me, a grandmother and mother of 5 who had been divorced and remarried. She told me that because her first husband had died, even though they were divorced, she could marry again in the Church. She said her children told her she was a one-issue voter, and her family disagreed with her on politics. But she said she'd read both party's platforms, and she was on Team Trump. She also had a certain dissatisfaction with Pope Francis, common among conservative Catholics, and she blamed him for introducing socialism into the Church.

The following day, I'd visit another congregation, a merger of three parishes called Christ the King in downtown Concord. I spoke with Father Rich and found him fascinating. He was deeply involved in a renewal movement and used many of the same buzzwords I heard among Protestant and Evangelical pastors searching to revitalize their churches. Father Rich was even trying to add screens at his parish for worship! He said a prayer during the service for victims of sexual assault, something I found moving in light of the continuing sexual abuse crisis among clergy in the Catholic Church. 

Father Rich spoke with me for about an hour after mass, even though I was a Lutheran in his midst, and in person as well I found him to be filled with the Spirit - as well as forthcoming and genuine. He disagreed with many conservative Catholic talking points, especially that the abuse crisis had been fostered by homosexuality within the priesthood, but Father Rich surprised me when he turned to talk about birth control. He suspected that hormonal birth control was impacting male and female sexuality. 

Of course, that was why I was so compelled write this book - even when I heard sometimes out-there ideas from people. It was important for me to talk to everyday Christians across America and to hear the stories that weren't being told elsewhere. I even texted my editor that now that I had a Catholic priest in the book, Red State Christians could be complete.

But it wasn't yet.

Beautiful, and sometimes gritty, New Hampshire

That afternoon after mass, I drove to Portsmouth, N.H., just south of Maine on the Atlantic Coast. It was cloudy and dreary, but I did get to try some lobster for dinner and transcribe my interview notes. I woke up the next morning and drove back west to Merrimack, N.H., where I was headed to Thomas More College. Father Rich had told me a little about the college, which he said was very conservative and made up mostly of homeschooled students, whose families found parochial schools insufficiently Catholic. I'd spoken with Thomas More's admissions staff on the phone about coming Monday morning, but I'd never heard anything decisive.

Still, if I learned anything in my time as a full-time journalist, sometimes you have to just show up.

I drove down country roads through Merrimack and up to what Google Maps said was Thomas More College. Doubtfully, I turned left onto a gravel road, where I saw a small sign. Welcome to Thomas More.

I drove around for a minute or so. There was a cluster of buildings, but no signs or labels, and I had no idea what was what. I finally decided to just park, and as I did so, I saw someone behind my car.

A young man in a brown leather blazer and stylish glasses walked up beside me.

"Are you Angela?"

His name was Dominic, originally from D.C., and he'd graduated from Thomas More last May. He refuted Father Rich's statistics, saying he'd "only been homeschooled freshman year," but then he graduated from a D.C. Catholic prep school, not Georgetown, though he "had friends who went there."

Again, I'll share much more about my tour and interview with Dominic at Thomas More in the book. But I found him to be a disconcerting combination of many things. Polite, kind, thoughtful -- and also perhaps dangerously intolerant. He told me he knew that homosexuality in the priesthood was rampant in the 60s and 70s, leading to the sexual abuse crisis, which Pope Francis was de-prioritizing in favor of talking about climate change. Dominic told me that he wasn't sure gay men, even if celibate, should be priests, because priests should be "natural men," (whatever that means!)

Dominic told me at first supporting Trump was hard, as he wasn't a "moral person." But then he said he and his classmates had gone to a rally, that MAGA hats were a staple at Thomas More, and that finally Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden were not the foremost Catholics in politics.

Dominic told me that while the school only enrolled 100 students, many of them were international and from at least 27 states, many from prominent families. Dominic's dad was an engineer and Princeton grad who had resisted Thomas More at first, but now wanted all his children to attend. Dominic is the oldest of six.

While I walked and talked with Dominic, I was taken aback by the beauty of campus and its peace. He told me how he and his fellow male classmates prayed each morning together in the dorm, and how he'd met his wife, Carley, at Thomas More. 

He walked me to the shrine for Mary, and the fall leaves shimmered in the sunshine.

Shrine to Mary at Thomas More College

It wasn't until I said goodbye and drove out on the gravel road that I realized what Thomas More and Dominic reminded me of: Gilead, from the Handmaid's Tale.


I left Thomas More and drove to a Thai restaurant at a nearby strip mall, where I was meeting a friend from journalism school who happened to live in Merrimack. She hadn't heard of Thomas More, and that again reminded me of why I was writing this book - to expose the stories that hadn't been told, to humanize the people and individuals behind the stories and give us reasons to talk to each other again, even if doing so makes us aware of things we didn't know before and didn't want to know now.

My friend told me about a quick hike I could do to a nearby waterfall, and for 45 minutes I had my glorious New England fall foliage dream.

Then I drove back to Massachusetts, down the coast past Manchester-by-the-Sea and Salem, overrun with Halloween tourists, and finally to Boston, from which I'd travel home again.

The drive gave me time to think about all of these research trips, from D.C. to Florida to Texas to Missouri to California. In each one I'd felt worried and fearful, and yet also in each one I'd felt swept away by the Holy Spirit, encountering people who I loved and who took my breath away with the stories of their lives and their faith. As they revealed their stories to me, I found my own Christian faith revealed and honed through each of them, and as their stories became clear, I felt the story of Jesus, too, rise up and demand to be heard in them and through them.

My big research trips are done. I must do one more Missouri trip, for some interviews with a dear friend from college and Thanksgiving with family, and I must write one more big chapter as well as an introduction and conclusion. I feel as though I'm rounding the final curve of the track, though my legs - and my typing - must carry me through the final most important 100 yards.

Thanks for reading the journey with me, and thanks to Fortress Press, who makes this all possible!


Popular Posts