Unlike most major European Religious Orders, the Dominicans were not brought to the United States through mission work of traveling priests. No, the Dominicans in the United States were founded by an American, and a storied one at that. Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP is this week’s Whiskey Man of the Week.
Born in the Colony of Maryland in 1768, the Fenwicks were an important Catholic family in the colonies. Edward’s Father, Ignatius Fenwick, was a Colonel in the American Army and was himself of English Catholic descent. At the age of 16, and several years before the signing of the American Constitution, Fenwick left to go study in Belgium. In Beligium, Fenwick met the Order of Preachers, and he decided to enter the Dominicans at the age of 20, after graduating from college.
During this time in Belgium, the French Revolution had been spreading throughout Europe. After Fenwick’s ordination, he became a professor at the Dominican College in Belgium. When France conquered Belgium, many of Belgium’s priests were imprisoned, with Fenwick among them. Many of his fellow priests were killed. Fenwick himself was saved after proving that he was an American citizen.
Fenwick left Belgium for England in 1795, and spent nearly 10 years there furthering his studies and serving the Order there. However, he longed to return to America and found the order in his home country. In 1804 he got his wish, and was sent back to America to do missionary work and to lay the foundations for a new Province. In 1805 the Province of the United States was founded (later renamed the Province of St. Joseph) with Fenwick serving as its new Provincial.
Fenwick did much to advance the Faith in the United States, especially West of the Allegheny Mountains. The Louisiana Purchase had only been recently signed when he returned home, and he immediately set out to work in these underserved areas. He founded the first Catholic University west of the Alleghenies, St. Rose Priory and Thomas Aquinas College (whose most famous alum was Jefferson Davis), and with three other Dominicans traveled the entire Mississippi Valley looking to find areas where their work would be needed.
In 1822, Fenwick was named the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Cincinnati, which served the entire Ohio Valley. In this role he continued to found further institutions that continue to serve the American Catholic Church, including the Athenaeum Seminary. He eventually died in 1832 in Wooster, Ohio while serving as a Missionary.
Bishop Fenwick combined a love of country and God, and desired to serve both. His fledgling country needed to hear the Good News of the True Church, and Bishop Fenwick committed himself to serve her. While it would have been easy enough to spend his life comfortably in a European Convent, he gave his life to found the Dominican Order in the United States. The American Church certainly owes him a great deal of gratitude for the good work that he did and the good work that the Eastern Dominicans continue to carry out in the U.S.