It wasn’t Christopher Columbus, but actually Leif Erikson that reached North America first. He was also the first Catholic to do so, too.
Every year on October 9th, we honor the first explorer to reach North America. No, that day isn’t Columbus Day. It’s actually Leif Erikson Day, and when celebrate and remember the first to have stepped foot on the continent, we also celebrate the first Catholic to do so, too.
Born circa 970 in Iceland to Erik the Red, who later established the Greenland colony in 986 with Leif after he was banished from his home country. In his early years, Leif was a Viking.
In 999, Leif and his crew set sail to travel from Greenland to Norway. He joined the royal household of King Olaf Tryggvason, the first Catholic king of Norway. Leif converted and was tasked by King Olaf with the mission of introducing Christ to Greenland.
Read an account from The Saga of Erik the Red, written in the 13th century.
Leif joined the body-guard of King Olaf Tryggvason, and the king formed an excellent opinion of him, and it appeared to him that Leif was a well-bred man. Once upon a time the king entered into conversation with Leif, and asked him, “Dost thou purpose sailing to Greenland in summer?”
Leif answered, “I should wish so to do, if it is your will.” The king replied, “I think it may well be so; thou shalt go my errand, and preach Christianity in Greenland.”
Leif said that he was willing to undertake it, but that, for himself, he considered that message a difficult one to proclaim in Greenland. But the king said that he knew no man who was better fitted for the work than he. “And thou shalt carry,” said he, “good luck with thee in it.” “That can only be,” said Leif, “if I carry yours with me.”
The Saga of the Greenlanders, also written in the 13th century, gives a similar account of Leif’s conversion to Catholicism.
“When 14 winters had passed, from the time Erik the Red went to build Greenland, Leif the son of Erik then went from Greenland to Norway; first he came to Trondheim that autumn, when king Olaf Tryggvason had come from north of Halogaland. Leif berthed his ship in Nidaros, and went immediately to king Olaf. The King preached the Faith to him, and to all the other heathens that came to him; it was easy for the king to convince Leif; he then was baptised and all his crew. Leif was with the king that winter, and he was treated well.”
When Leif set sale to Greenland, with monks in the ranks of the his crew, he was blown off course and landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in northernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada. He explored the coastline from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod, naming the area Vineland because of abundant “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines” he saw there.
After staying the winter in Vineland, he returned to his family estate in Greenland where he preached the Faith and converted many, including his mother Thjóðhildr who built a church called Thjóðhild’s Church. That Church was the first built on the North American continent.
Now every year when you celebrate Leif Erikson day, you will know you’re celebrating the first Catholic to step foot in North America.