How the West Found Faith: New Exhibit Explores Religion and American Life

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by Katie Vasquez

An artifact of faith is helping New Yorkers see a part of American history in a whole new light.

“When we talk about westward expansion we don’t often talk about religion or we talk about it in very limited terms,” said Lily Wong, associate curator at the New York Historical Society.

The New York Historical Society is focusing on that spirituality with a new exhibit titled, “Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West.”

Curators have gathered a vast collection of 60 objects, images, and documents, all designed to tell the story of how religion became a vital part of American life in the 1800s.

The exhibition shows the many faiths of the American melting pot and the experience of a vast number of ethnic communities.

One Catholic could enjoy looking to the Southwest. Mexico once controlled the area but after the Mexican-American war, many Franciscans left, leaving the people of faith in the area struggling for spiritual guidance.

“So there are priests that are still active and working but there aren’t as many as probably are needed but the villagers work among themselves, it’s really important to them to sustain their Catholicism,” said Wong.

The journey out West was grueling and some didn’t make it. The rosary belonged to one of the first Sisters of Loretto to settle in New Mexico. She was one of the lucky ones.” 

“Two of the sisters took ill, one of them actually died along the way, but I think it’s a testament to their commitment to the mission,” said Wong.

It’s just one of many stories outlined by the Historical Society that New Yorkers should know.

“I think all of these and many of the ones in our exhibit are ones that people aren’t familiar with,” said Wong. The exhibition runs through February of next year.

To see the exhibit “Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West” just go to