“Blood is thicker than water,” was one of my maternal grandmother’s favorite sayings. Family was everything to her. She was extremely proud of her Southern and Irish roots, and often shared tales—possibly apocryphal—of the family history. We are blessed to have many heirlooms and photographs that breathed life into her tales of those long-ago family members. I never knew my great-grandmother, but I was brought up on stories about her beauty and grace. I loved to admire her portrait, and to play under the intricately carved table that had come down to my grandmother through her, part of a set that’s been in the family longer than anyone can remember.
I internalized the stories and the reverence for the past and felt its influence on the present. And when I grew up I became interested in my father’s side of the family as well, and conducted lazy internet genealogy research to learn more. I’ve built a family tree that goes back many generations on both sides, and have learned that my roots are not only Irish but English, Dutch, and German as well.
Family heritage encompasses many things. Families pass down language–my Alabama roots are four generations back now but in my family we still use some expressions that are not native to East Tennessee. Families pass down heirlooms like the table and chairs I mentioned, the prie-dieu on which my great-grandparents knelt to be married, the silver coffee and tea service. Families pass down genetic material, as I think you can see in the comparison pictures of my youngest child and her great-great-great-great grandmother below. And families pass down religion.
But the strength of my Catholic heritage does not lie in its breadth. Only a very tiny minority of my ancestors were Catholic. My father’s family are Baptists, and all the way up that entire side of my family tree are nothing but Protestants as far I can trace. My mother’s father’s family, too, were and remain Protestant, Irish surname notwithstanding. It probably won’t surprise my readers that my family’s faith comes to us through my maternal grandmother, but what is surprising is what a slender thread of Catholicism runs through the family tree. None of my Alabama ancestors were Catholic; they were prominent Episcopalians, who donated the land on which their parish church now stands.
My beautiful great-grandmother broke with family history and tradition and converted to Catholicism, thanks to her Irish Catholic husband, whose grandparents came over from Ireland in the mid-1800s. So I have Hugh and Mary Foley to thank originally for my Catholic heritage (and by extension Saint Patrick). I am also grateful to my grandmother and my mother who were able to pass down the faith in mixed marriages (aided by husbands who supported their children’s Catholic upbringing even while declining to convert).
My husband became Catholic six years after our marriage. He chose to adopt a Catholic heritage for himself, and to share the responsibility of passing it down to our children.
Do you have a Catholic heritage story to share? If you want, you can tell us about it in the comments!