My grandfather loved America with passion and pride. But he wasn’t born here. Grandpa came to the United States from Switzerland as young boy in the 1880’s. He traveled here by ship with his mother and four siblings with only one trunk of possessions among them. His father had made the journey earlier and was farming the rocky hills in southern Nemaha County until he could bring the rest of his family to join him.
They were Catholics and at that time the United States was very anti-Catholic. In fact, according to Oxford American History, Protestants in the United States, seeing the large influx of Catholics entering the country, believed that they were a “threat to the very fabric of society.” By the time my grandfather’s family got here, the United States already had a long history of discrimination against Catholics and, according to Kenneth Davis, a prominent historian, “Catholics were lambasted as theological abominations and traitorous. People wanted their religious freedom, but not freedom for others.” This deep hatred for Catholics lasted until John F. Kennedy become our first Catholic President in 1960.
Grandfather and his family left their Catholic religion behind when they came here. It was easy to hide or deny a religion that only consisted of different beliefs and not dress or habits. In fact, most of my family never knew we had come here as Catholics, but my grandfather once let it slip while sharing stories with me about his early days in America. He admitted to me that his mother had told the children to not mention they were Catholic. The family soon began attending the Congregational Church, in which my mother and her sisters were raised.
My grandfather had to drop out school after fifth grade so he could work to help support his family. Farming the rocky land in north central Kansas did not lead to wealth or riches. But not being able to complete his education only served to make him value it even more and he made sure all three of his daughters received a college education, even though at that time, in the mid-to-late 30’s, it was not common for women to be college educated.
Grandpa became a successful businessman and proudly served several terms as mayor of his town. Decades after he died I continued to hear stories of how he helped others succeed. People, learning that I was his granddaughter, would excitedly share stories with me about how he had paid for their schooling, or had provided a home and work for someone, or how he allowed those down on his or her luck and bank account to carry a loan at the lumberyard he owned, that likely would never be paid. He did all of this despite anyone’s class, creed or color. He knew what it was like to be poor and marginalized and he never stopped helping those who needed a hand up. People who knew him describe him as always fair, generous and honest.
Within the family he started here are teachers, journalists, lawyers, artists, musicians, doctors and business people – all contributing members of society and our country, and all descendants from immigrants who came here during a time of hatred and discrimination because of their religious beliefs.