Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rediscovering the 'Most Popular Catholic Novel'

19th century oil painting of Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman
Artist Eduardo Cano painted this oil on canvas of Cardinal
Wiseman in 1865-1866. The artwork is at the University of
Seville. Public domain image is from Wikipedia Commons.
As an author of Catholic-oriented novels, I wonder what religiously oriented fiction was available to 19th century Catholics in Florida. My cursory web searches haven't been too fruitful in this department.

I found one relevant post on McNamara's Blog by church historian and professor Pat McNamara. He posted an 1897 article about Catholic author L.W. Reilly, who actually did spend some time in Florida in the 1880s. No novel titles are mentioned, though.

Another 1897 publication offered a clue about an important Catholic novel of the era, a story named Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs. Really, the clue was a shout. I was browsing through an online version of the 1897 nonfiction book, How to Make the Mission, by "A Dominican Father" (Philadelphia, H.L. Kilner & Co.) and saw a full-page ad that knew no shame.  It loudly proclaimed Fabiola as "The Most Popular Catholic Novel Ever Published."

Granted, the publisher was one and the same. But Fabiola was written in 1854, almost 45 years before the ad was published. Kilner & Co. was advertising its new, large-print edition. The novel about the early church was so significant that it must have been on bookshelves in some pioneer Florida Catholic homes.

The author was one reason. His Eminence Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman was a towering figure of his time, with legendary achievements as a religious leader. He's fully worth a separate blog post. Cardinal Wiseman was a prolific writer of nonfiction, but his fiction also earned accolades. Wikipedia says the success of Fabiola was "immediate and phenomenal" and that it was translated into almost every European language.

So, it seems Fabiola is - or was - as good as the publisher touted. We'll see. I've started reading it. Cardinal Wiseman has a strong voice, and the prose isn't as florid as some writing of that era can be. Even in the early pages, I sense the Catholic essence -  beyond obvious elements such as characters of strong faith. The essence emerges in such things as a character's defense of human dignity no matter what a person's status in life. Such continuity through centuries is one of the durable threads that connect Catholics over time. Cardinal Wiseman is still teaching and preaching to us all.

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