Author’s note: A heartfelt ‘hello and welcome’ to Alexandrians the world over! While this article is told from a uniquely American perspective, the challenge to expand our children’s horizons is one that holds true for each one of us. We all live in nations that are built by immigrants, from ancient times to modern, who have brought with them their hopes and dreams, their cultures and their faiths. It is my hope that by reading this you too will find encouragement to frame your children’s picture of their own national history a bit wider; seeking out and including people of faiths and cultures outside your own in the stories you enjoy together. Patriotism deeply rooted in a true love of homeland and a genuine appreciation for the many and diverse men and women that have shaped it is a gift we all can give our children.

Somewhere back in the mists of memory when the world was still young, a world full of Cabbage Patch dolls, Caboodles, and Aqua Net, a little girl sat at her desk tracing her ABC’s with a chubby pencil on a dittoed worksheet. Her teacher, Mrs. King, was readying her students for one of the last surviving vestiges of Americana: the all-important Thanksgiving Pageant. The room was a whirl of die-cut maple leaves hung from the ceiling in showers of reds and yellows and browns, pungent with the singular aroma of construction paper and Mr. Sketch markers. Children busied themselves with costumes and props that broke all the natural laws of beauty and physics. Stove pipe hats arose from piles of black poster board bearing a closer resemblance to the Leaning Tower of Pisa than to any haberdashery that ever graced the head of a Puritan Father, while little white caps took shapes decidedly more like that of Nurse Nancy than of Anne Bradstreet. We practiced ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ until we were parched enough to consume pitcherfuls of Tang.

Then one afternoon, in the midst of this flurry of pre-pageant excitement, Mrs. King read us a story, Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. It tells the story of a little girl, a Jewish immigrant, whose own school class was getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. Her teacher had given them an assignment: they were each to make a Pilgrim doll to add to the model the class was constructing of the village at Plymouth. Molly’s days as an immigrant and newcomer to school had been punctuated by episodes of bewilderment and bullying, and this assignment was no different. When Molly and her Mama sat down to review the day’s assignments, Mama asked: “What’s a Pilgrim?” Molly struggled for the words and answered: “Pilgrims came to this country from the other side.” “Like us” Mama said.

Later that evening Molly’s Mama lovingly made her a Pilgrim doll, fashioned after a photograph of herself as a young girl, a doll with a full red skirt, a bright yellow blouse, an embroidered floral kerchief, and her very own pair of little black boots. Upon seeing her doll the next morning, not at all the ‘Pilgrim’ they had expected, Molly’s classmates erupted into peals of mocking laughter. But her teacher interjects: “Listen to me, all of you. Molly’s mother is a Pilgrim. She’s a modern Pilgrim. She came here, just like the Pilgrims long ago, so she could worship God in her own way, in peace and freedom…I’m going to put this beautiful doll on my desk, where everyone can see it all the time. It will remind us all that Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

Molly’s teacher made a beautiful and true point, one that should resonate with all of us. When we hear the word ‘pilgrim,’ do we think only of Protestants fleeing from the oppression they experienced in Holland and England hundreds of years ago? For many of us, exposure to the lives of the men and women who built our great land, a land of hope and promise and opportunity, has been understandably limited to those whose stories more closely mirror our own. But what about the other pilgrim stories? How much do we know about the stories of the many Catholic explorers and missionaries, soldiers and statesmen, inventors and teachers who helped shape our nation? Have we listened to their stories from within, hearing them in their own voice? How about the Mormon pioneers who tamed inhospitable western lands that none but the most ardent and determined would have settled? Do we know their stories, what hopes and dreams drove them into the wilderness? And what of the Jewish citizens of New York and Philadelphia, whose experience as a Jewish people, of a collective homeless homesickness, caused them to sacrifice both lives and fortunes for the promise of freedom of worship, a promise made and broken by so many nations before?

I am just discovering the stories of these other pilgrims myself, and one of the things I am finding is that the stories of these Americans are inseparable from the story of their faith. What drove them across oceans and deserts and prairies and mountains? What led them up rivers and down valleys and beyond the edges of maps? It was the desire to live in freedom, to live as people of faith without government hindrance or the condemnation of outsiders, and to share their faith with those whose lives touched theirs.

One of the best ways to discover these pilgrim stories is through books that feature their faith prominently, acknowledging it as a real and driving “why” behind both their devotion to our country and their many contributions to exploration, discovery, medicine, education, innovation, settlement, and statesmanship. By choosing to include books from series such as Credo, Vision, Dujarie Press, and American Background, I can open my children’s eyes to the lives of many of the Catholics who are an integral part of the fabric of our country, men and women whose names and contributions are either missing from the Landmark and Signature series, or whose stories are told there, but in an incomplete way, without the illuminating context of their faith. I can expand my children’s image of the Founding Fathers by sharing with them the biography of Myer Myers from Covenant Books, or perhaps the Messner biography of Hyam Salomon, introducing them to these largely forgotten men to whom our nation owes a tremendous debt. We can read through the Landmark book The Coming of the Mormons together, appreciating how the Mormon’s settlement of the West contributed to the growth of our country.

Sharing these stories with our children does not diminish or threaten our own faith, but rather enriches their education by providing them opportunities to see others for who they are, to hear them in their own words, and to understand them more fully, even when that understanding highlights our differences just as much as our similarities.

The stories of these other pilgrims, often neglected, are still a vital thread of the American story, our story. And in a very real way they have helped to shape us and make us who we are as a nation. One of my duties and privileges as a parent is to invest my children with true patriotism, a pride in all things good and true and right that America stands for. What better way to do this than to give them a bigger, richer, more orchestral strain of ‘America the Beautiful’ springing up in their hearts; one where the pilgrim’s feet beating a thoroughfare of freedom across the wilderness include not only shoes with silver buckles, but also a pair of little black boots.

Johanna Bittle

Johanna Bittle writes from a lifelong love of captivating stories, insatiable curiosity, and a childhood spent in nature. Homeschooled first grade through high school, she graduated from Hillsdale College with degrees in History and Classics, then continued her postgraduate studies at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Together she and her husband homeschool half a dozen precocious children in a house brimming with books in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her husband ministers as an Eastern Orthodox priest. She enjoys reading, writing, and pursuing the True, Good, and Beautiful alongside her children.