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The Untold Story of American Catholicism

While many are familiar with the stories of Protestant pilgrims settling in the American colonies, the story of American Catholicism too often goes untold. Here at the Basilica, you can find many of the “firsts” of American Catholicism and its development portrayed in mosaic tile in the east portico tympana. From the establishment of the first parish to the ordination of the first priest, these events serve as an inspiration to the faithful about how God can accomplish great things when we have a willing heart. Discover the stories of church leaders in the early United States and the history of American Catholicism in today’s post.

1565: The First Parish in the United States is Established

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés portrayed in the East Portico Tympana
The establishment of the first parish in America portrayed in mosaic in the east portico

The first tympanum mosaic portrays Menéndez de Avilés’ arrival in Florida, commemorating the establishment of the parish at St. Augustine.

Concerned about encroachments by French Huguenots upon the Floridian coast, King Philip II of Spain sent one of his trusted captains to the New World in 1565 to exert Spain’s influence and found a new colony. Known as Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the captain set sail with his fleet of 11 ships in July and arrived in the New World on August 28. Upon his arrival, Menéndez de Avilés named the bay where they weighed anchor after St. Augustine. He immediately set his men to work erecting a fort, which became the location of the first parish in the United States.

1681: Father Eusebio Francisco Kino Evangelizes the West

Eusebio Kino in the East Portico
Padre Kino portrayed in a mosaic tympana in the east portico

Born in the Italian Alps in 1645, Eusebio Kino joined the Society of Jesus at age 21 and was officially ordained in 1677. He ministered to the Italian people until 1681, when he set sail for the New World. In the year that followed, he was selected to be the royal cosmographer and a missionary on the California Expedition. Eusebio worked in Baja and San Bruno until eventually settling in the Pímeria Alta. There, he founded mission communities among the O’odham people and taught them new technologies and agricultural techniques that would enable them to be independent in the colonized world. Padre Kino repeatedly protected the O’odham people against enslavement and mistreatment, even riding 1,500 miles on horseback in seven weeks to personally deliver a written complaint to colonial officials detailing and denouncing the unjust treatment of the O’odham. Over the course of his lifetime, Padre Kino founded 24 missions and baptized over 4,500 people. In the fourth tympanum, he is portrayed ministering to an indigenous man in the New World. Learn more about Padre Kino.

1770: St. Junípero Serra Founds the Mission at Monterey

Junípero Serra tympana mosaic
Junípero Serra portrayed in a mosaic tympana in the east portico

Born in Petra, Majorca, Spain in 1713, Junípero Serra joined the Franciscan order at the age of 16 and earned his doctorate at Lullian University before coming to America in 1749. Like Padre Kino, Serra worked with the indigenous people whom he often defended against Spanish government overreach, and was known for teaching both religious truths and agricultural skills with care and passion. Despite suffering from a variety of health complications over the course of his life, Serra founded nine missions in the state of California, and even learned one of the Native American languages in order to share the Gospel more effectively. In 1784, he passed away at the age of 70 and was buried at the Mission at San Carlos. The fifth tympanum depicts St. Junípero Serra founding missions in California. Read more about Junípero Serra.

1793: Fr. Stephen Theodore Badin is the First Priest Ordained in the United States.

Fr. Stephen Theodore Badin portrayed in a mosaic tympana in the east portico

On July 17, 1768, Stephen Theodore Badin was born in Orleans, France. After studying at Montaigu College in Paris, Badin attended the Sulpician Seminary in Orleans for two years until the school closed during the French Revolution in 1791. That November, he sailed to America with four other men, with the goal of serving as a priest in the young country. They landed in Philadelphia in March of 1792, and within a year, Badin finished his theological training at a newly established seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. On May 25, 1793, shortly before his 25th birthday, Badin became the first priest to be ordained in the United States and was soon sent to serve at the Mission in Kentucky.

In his new position, Badin often had to travel long distances to assist his parishioners at various settlements, and at one point, he was needed in so many places at once that he had to spend over three weeks on horseback. Throughout this period of his ministry, Badin helped build new churches and establish congregations in addition to his regular duties. In 1819, Badin was called back to France, where he worked for nine years until returning to the United States. From Michigan to Indiana, he ministered to various communities across the nation, serving both Catholic and Potawatomi Indian populations. During his travels, Badin would often locate and buy properties he considered suitable for the establishment of future churches; one such property eventually became the location of Notre Dame University! After a lifetime of serving others, Badin eventually passed away in Cincinnati, Ohio, in April 1853. You can find Fr. Stephen Theodore Badin portrayed in the second tympanum of the east portico.

Christ the Teacher portrayed in the East Portico Tympana
Christ the Teacher portrayed in a mosaic tympana in the east portico

Christ the Teacher

Fittingly found at the center of the five tympana, the Christ the Teacher mosaic reminds us that Christ should always be the center point of our faith and work here on earth. In this portrayal, He is shown standing at the center with his arms outspread. On His right, a coin purse is depicted beside a banner with the letters SPQR, which reference the Latin phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” meaning “The Senate and People of Rome,” and to His left is a caravaca cross and a thurible filled with incense.

The mosaic serves as a reminder of God’s sovereignty over temporal affairs, reflecting His kingship over heaven and earth.


“The Cause of Junípero Serra,” Dr. Geraldine Rohling

Eusebio Francesco Chini,” Dicastery for the Causes of Saints

Eusebio Francisco Kino,” National Park Service

Padre Kino – Our Padre on Horseback,” Kino Historical Society

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés,” Britannica

Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and
Tour Book
Washington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.

Saint Junípero Serra,” USCCB

SPQR,” Merriam-Webster

Stephen Theodore Badin,” New Advent

Who Was Stephen Badin?” Notre Dame Magazine

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