I grew up in a family that taught its children to distrust and dislike Roman Catholics. My father’s father believed that if John F. Kennedy became President, the Pope-o-Rome (one word) would relocate to Washington D.C., and rule the nation. I believed his attitude came from his rural Baptist background, a distrust of The Other, the specter of an ornate foreign religion overshadowing his simple, unvarnished, American Protestantism.
On the other side of the family, my mother’s mother was even more virulent in her beliefs. She hated the Catholic church, and singled out Italians as the worst of the worst. She died when I was in college, but only now, almost 50 years later, have I learned where her hatred had its birth: France, in a word.
Grandma’s maiden name was DeWein. The DeWein family comes from Alsace-Lorraine, a province that sheltered many French Protestants, known as Huguenots, who felt safer knowing they could flee east across the border into Germany or Switzerland if Catholics threatened their lives. It was a fear founded in reality.
In the 1500s, Catholicism was the state religion of France. French Protestants, Huguenots, who worshiped and dressed differently, were distrusted by majority of the population, and by the King of France, Charles IX, in particular. The King’s mother was Catherine de Medici, daughter of a ruler of Florence. Together with the King’s Italian advisors, she advised him to squash a possible rebellion led by Protestants before it could begin, by killing all of the most influential Huguenots.
On the eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, the King’s soldiers rounded up the top Huguenots in Paris and put them to death. The lay Catholics of Paris, good church-goers all, seeing what was being done and feeling that they had the King’s approval, set about killing every Protestant they could find. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took the lives of thousands of men, women and children in Paris. The killing spread to 12 other cities in France – all cities with Catholic majorities and significant Huguenot minorities – and for the next month, Protestants were murdered by their Catholic neighbors, so that France might be united with one true religion.
Catherine de Medici surveys the bodies of Huguenots at the gates of the Louvre palace in this 19th century painting, “Un matin devant la porte du Louvre,” by Édouard Debat-Ponsan
In their enthusiasm, the leaders of the purge gift-wrapped the head of the leading Huguenot, Gaspard de Coligny, and sent it to the Pope. For one reason or another, the petit cadeau only made it as far as Lyon; perhaps the senders had second thoughts, or perhaps the package became too unpleasant for its bearers. But in Rome, Pope Gregory XIII caught the spirit of the occasion, and had a celebratory medal cast, with his visage on one side and an angel with a sword slaying Protestants on the other.
By the 1800s, the DeWeins from whom I am descended were living in German provinces and cities along the border with France. My great-great-grandfather was born in Bavaria, and my great-great-grandmother was from the state of Baden-Württemberg, although her first language was French. When they came to America, they brought their family stories and family fears with them.
As is common, their biases and beliefs were passed down from generation to generation. My grandmother, Cora DeWein, grew up with them. Studying my family’s history, I came to see that her hatred of Catholics did not stem from a disapproval of tall hats or gold domes, but from a family memory of persecution and murder, whose perpetrators were long dead, but whose deeds led to centuries of distrust and sadness.
I shun bigotry of all kinds, but it’s an odd comfort to know where this particular bias came from.
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One more thought: The image of Roman Catholic Christians murdering Protestant Christians in order to cleanse France would somehow be less horrific if the world had learned something from it. But in the 20th century alone, the Muslims of Ottoman Turkey attempted to kill every last Armenian Christian, nominally Christian Germans attempted to kill every Jew in Europe, and Christian Serbs attempted to murder every last Christian Croat and Muslim Bosnian. Millions more died, the perpetrators themselves came to ruin, and yet each group learned nothing from the murderers who went before.