Jun 30, 2017 Print this article

How Catholic Vikings Reached the New World Before Columbus

The following story is based on the accounts of the Vikings themselves as told primarily through two sources, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. All dialogue that appears is taken from these narratives, which were more or less contemporary of the events they describe.


“I ask you, unblemished Monks’ Tester [Christ],
to be the ward of my travels;
may the Lord of the Peaks’ Pane [heaven],
shade my path with His hawk’s perch [hand]”

- Poem by Viking sailors in their journey to the New World


The year is 990, almost 500 years before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. It is an age of heroes and legends. In Norway, a saint rules as king. Nearly all of Northern Europe is under the dominion of Viking peoples. These Vikings, less than a generation before, were sacking monasteries throughout the European continent and the British Isles. Now, they are in the process of converting. Their ferocity in combat is matched only by their spirit of exploration and adeptness at navigating the seas.

Across the hills of Iceland and Scandinavia, crosses are being erected by the newly baptized nobility while pagan priests perform profane rites in a vain attempt to stop the spread of the new religion: Catholicism.

In the hall of King Olaf Tryggvason – who would be responsible for countless conversions in his time – the young explorer and son of Earl Erik the Red stood in private audience with his liege.

“Do you intend to sail to Greenland this summer?” the king asked.
“I would like to do so, if is your wish,” he replied.
“It could well be so; you will go as my envoy and convert Greenland to Christianity.”

After receiving his orders, he set sail to complete the task.

While at sea, he and his crew were tossed about, bringing them far off course. Rather than hampering their journey, this unplanned deviation turned out to be an action of Our Lady for the conversion of the Greenlanders and the spreading of the Faith to the New World. On a nearby shore, in an unknown land, they encountered a marooned crew of fellow Viking sailors. Leif, as the sagas recount, was a man of “strong character and kindness.” Recognizing the plight of the men, he rescued them and took them aboard his own vessel in a true spirit of Catholic chivalry.

By their extensive knowledge of celestial navigation, the sailors were able to reestablish the correct course towards Greenland. When they arrived and the rescued men disembarked, the news of their recovery spread throughout the land and because of this Leif Eiriksson became known as “Leif the Lucky.” Due to his newfound reputation, his apostolate was warmly received by the people and in an action seldom seen in history, he was able to convert the entire country in a short period of time. To commemorate this miraculously rapid conversion, Thjoldhild, the mother of Leif who was herself converted during this time, built a chapel – a replica of which can be seen to this day.

Apparitions and Atonement

Not long after the conversion of the population of Greenland, which was modest even then, a plague struck the island and many died, including Thorstein Eiriksson, the brother of Leif. Baptized in a swift manner, the Greenlanders had become lax in their faith. In response to their infidelities, God raised Thorstein from the dead to deliver a message to the people. Rather than telling everyone directly, the reanimated body of Thorstein beckoned for his faithful servant to bring him to his wife, Gudrid, who was known to be a devout woman.

Waking Gudrid from her sleep, the servant bade her to make the sign the cross and plead to heaven for protection. When this was done, he explained to her the situation. She responded in a most shrewd manner: “It may be that there is a purpose for this strange occurrence, and it will have consequences long to remembered. I expect that God will grant me His protection. I will take the chance, with God’s mercy, of speaking to [Thorstein]…”

When she entered the room where Thorstein lay, tears reflecting the sadness of God flowed down his cheeks. He reminded her that those who kept the faith well brought the mercy and salvation of God, but many in the realm had become negligent in their faith, “These practices will not do which have been followed here in Greenland after the coming of Christianity: burying people in unconsecrated ground with little or any liturgy said over them. I want to have my corpse taken to a church, along with those of the other people who have died here.”

Heading heaven’s request sent through her deceased husband, Gudrid relayed the message to her countrymen, who in turn mended their ways and prepared the bodies of their kinsmen for a proper Catholic burial and requiem Mass.

The Great Voyage of Captain Karlsefni

The actions of the faithful in Greenland caused God to move His hand and put an end to the plague. In thanksgiving, the islanders held great feasts and festivities during Christmastide. During these celebrations, an explorer and ship captain named Karlsefni, who was wintering in Greenland, met the recently widowed Gudrid. Seeing that she was a woman of great virtue and intelligence, he desired to take her as a wife and asked Earl Erik the Red if he could plead for her hand in marriage, as Erik was not only the lord of that land, but also her former father-in-law.

Following Christmas and his marriage, Karlsefni heard of the strange lands that Leif had seen while lost at sea. With Leif’s advice and blessing, a capable crew and a spirit of adventure, he decided to seek out this unknown territory and bring civilization to it.

While at sea, he began to recognize the landmarks that Leif had told him about. After several days, they anchored ashore and sent two Scottish scouts to explore the land. The scouts eventually returned with promising signs – grapes and mysterious “self-sowing wheat.” Satisfied with their findings, Karlsefni sent the party further inland to establish a colony.

In spite of the livestock they had brought, the Vikings suffered a harsh winter. Fishing yielded little and no deer were seen. Rather than despairing, the Christian Vikings placed their faith in the mercy of God. Meanwhile, a pagan who had accompanied the crew was performing secret rituals to Thor, his heathen god.

The prayers of the crew seemed to be answered when a curious whale beached nearby. Karlsefni, who was knowledgeable of whales was skeptical, as he had never seen one like this before. Nevertheless, the starving settlers decided to cook and eat the whale to satiate their hunger.

One by one, they began to fall ill. Thorhall, the perfidious pagan, taunted them saying, “Didn’t Old Redbeard [Thor] prove to be more help than your Christ? This was my payment for the poem I composed about Thor, my guardian, who’s seldom disappointed me.” Realizing that they had been deceived by the foul profligate, Karlsefni and the other Catholics in the party threw the carcass of the whale over a cliff, having confidence that God, in His mercy, would provide for them.

Sure enough, their hunting and fishing began yielding an abundance of food. Seeing this, Thorhall and the few other pagan Norsemen decided to return to Scandinavia. But they would never make it as their ship was blown off course to Ireland, where they were beaten, enslaved and killed.

Hostile Encounters

The Catholic Vikings, now rid of pagan interlopers, took to their boats and scouted the rivers to settle farther inland. Finding a lagoon full with fish, surrounded by a stocked forest and more of the “self-sowing wheat,” they founded a new colony, far more successful than the last.

One day, they spotted several hide-covered ships coming up the river. Inside, was a group of Indians, who marveled at the size and sophistication of the Vikings. Disappearing back from whence they came, the Indians returned with larger numbers.

Being of good will, the Catholics raised white shields to the approaching group to show that they were friendly and offered the Indians – or Skraelings in the Norse tongue – milk from their cows. In turn, the natives gave them furs, leather and packs.

Karlsefni consulted with the other leaders of the settlement and instructed the men not to trade their weapons with the Indians.

Becoming increasingly greedy and demanding, the Indians wandered belligerently around the Viking village, causing trouble. Unfamiliar with European livestock, the natives thought it would be a good idea to harass the bull of the herd. Unfortunately for them, it did not end well.

Startled by the raging bull, the Indians fled back into their boats. No longer interested in trade, a war party of the hide-covered canoes, carrying tribal warriors came to lay siege to the Viking encampment. Never being ones to back down from a fight, the Viking band met the Indians on the field outside the settlement. Battle ensued.

Through superior tactics, technology, and stature, the Vikings prevailed, losing only two men whereas their fallen foes were legion. Realizing that it would no longer be safe for the settlers, Karlsefni made the decision to relocate his people.

The First Child and the One-Legged Man

Setting sail bearing North along the shoreline, the itinerant explorers set up an encampment in an area known as Straumfjord, located perhaps in what is today Canada.

Early one morning, the guard of the camp noticed something stirring in the nearby woods. Startled, they shouted at whatever was hiding to reveal itself. A one-legged man emerged from the foliage and fired an arrow, striking Thorvald, a brother of Leif Eiriksson. They pursued the man through the forest, but it was to no avail… he had managed to escape and their companion lay dead.

Being good Catholics, the men gave their comrade in arms a proper Christian burial and marked his grave with what might have been the first cross erected in the New World.

The tragedy of his death would soon be remedied, as Gudrid (the wife of Captain Karlsefni) discovered that she was pregnant. And so it was that she gave birth to Snorri Karlsefsson, the first Catholic born in North America.

Return to Greenland and Epilogue

When it came to pass that the child was 3-years-old and was able to survive a long voyage, the crew set a course for a return journey to Greenland.

Along the way, they encountered two abandoned Indian children who joined their crew near Markland, part of present day Canada. Out of charity for their souls, the Norsemen took them in, baptized them, taught them their language and instructed them in the Faith, thus making them some of the first American Indian converts.

Upon their arrival to Greenland, the explorers were received by Earl Eirik and invited to stay the winter in household, after which they parted ways.

Karlsefni and Gudrid would go on to have more children. Following the death of her husband, Gudrid made a pilgrimage to Rome to see the Holy Father. Upon her return, she built a church with the help of her sons and took vows as a nun.

Among the descendants of the courageous Captain Karlsefni and the ever faithful Gudrid would be numbered three great-grandchildren who were Catholic bishops, two from the line of Snorri, the child of the Americas, and one from their other son.