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Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North / Edition 2

Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North / Edition 2

by John T. McGreevy
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Parish Boundaries chronicles the history of Catholic parishes in major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia, melding their unique place in the urban landscape to the course of twentieth century American race relations. In vivid portraits of parish life, John McGreevy examines the contacts and conflicts between Euro-American Catholics and their African-American neighbors. By tracing the transformation of a church, its people, and the nation, McGreevy illuminates the enormous impact of religious culture on modern American society.

"Parish Boundaries can take its place in the front ranks of the literature of urban race relations."—Jonathan Dorfman, Washington Post Book Review

"A prodigiously researched, gracefully written book distinguished especially by its seamless treatment of social and intellectual history."—Robert Orsi, American Historical Review

"Parish Boundaries will fascinate historians and anyone interested in the historic connection between parish and race."—Ed Marciniak, Chicago Tribune

"The history that remains to be written will rest on the firm foundation of Mr. McGreevy's remarkable book."—Richard Wightman Fox, New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226558745
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/1998
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Parish Boundaries

The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North

By John T. McGreevy

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-49747-1




Echoes of the Chicago riots reverberated far from the shores of Lake Michigan. Just prior to the September 1919 meeting of the American bishops, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri cabled the apostolic delegation in Washington from Rome, noting that "it would be opportune that in the imminent meeting of the episcopacy there be treated the problems of the black population and that there be deplored the recent killings." A similar message made its way to individual bishops, suggesting that Pope Benedict XV was disturbed by both the violence and the feebleness of Catholic work in the African-American community.

This concern was not unusual. For a generation, Vatican officials had pestered American prelates with questions about these matters. The bishops, at Roman instigation, had established a "Commission for Catholic Missions Among the Colored People and the Indians" which distributed the proceeds from an annual collection to priests and sisters working in African-American and Native-American communities. Twenty years later, Pope Pius X asked "all Catholics to be friendly to Negroes, who are called no less than other men to share in all the great benefits of the redemption." Vatican officials had also encouraged Mother Katherine Drexel, the founder of the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament, to use the millions that she inherited from her Philadelphia family to work not in Africa but among Native- and African-Americans. In response to Drexel's entreaties, the bishops in 1906 established another collection, this one entitled "The Catholic Board for Mission Work Among the Colored People." Neither collection proved sufficient. The few priests and sisters working in the African-American community continued to scrape by on the pennies in the collection basket, a paltry annual check from the mission collections, and occasional support from the bishops. Only 2 percent of the nation's African-Americans claimed membership within the church.

In part, these difficulties resulted from the severe strains placed on the Catholic institutional structure by successive waves of European immigrants. These immigrants created a church largely of the North, while the vast majority of African-Americans lived in the South. In 1920, Catholics in Chicago could worship at 228 Catholic parishes, Catholics in Atlanta at 5. Buffalo counted 69 churches, Nashville, 7. Louisiana was heavily Catholic, and home to over half of the nation's roughly 200,000 African-American Catholics, but the South more generally was alien and — during the 1920s — hostile territory. "It is a well known fact," concluded the first historian of the Church's work among African-Americans, "that these southern states, with the exceptions noted, are not only non-Catholic but are anti-Catholic."

Attributing the paucity of African-American Catholics to inadequate resources, of course, elided alternative explanations. Speaking informally with the bishops at the 1919 meetings, and offering another perspective on these matters, was Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner, the leader of a recently formed group called the Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics. A biology professor at Howard University and member of the NAACP from its inception, Turner became the most prominent in a group of African-American Catholics who urged Catholics to "eradicate any and every obstacle which tends to prevent colored men and women from enjoying the full temporal graces of the Church." Beginning with the desegregation of Knights of Columbus units during the war, Turner moved from his Washington base to organize African-American Catholics throughout the country. Declaring that racism "is too flagrant a wrong to be tolerated for a moment by the Church after its attention has been sufficiently called to it," he issued letters under the committee's name, demanding that the bishops open Catholic institutions to African-Americans.

The American hierarchy politely ignored Turner's missives. Catholicism in the South was essentially a Jim Crow church, with parishes, schools, church societies, seminaries, and even Catholic universities usually segregated. Few southern bishops dared allow an African-American priest or sister to work in the region, and African-American Catholics remained on the margins of what was already a minority religion. Baltimore bishop Michael Curley was typical in his view that only segregation could prevent turmoil. As he testily explained in response to a Vatican query, the Holy See must understand the "keen race distinction which the Catholic Church in America has not made and cannot solve."

Persistent questions from Rome, however, suggested that Curley's position was viewed with skepticism. In 1919, Benedict XV issued Maximum Illud, the apostolic letter that one historian has called "the charter for the Catholic missionary movement of modern times." Using themes that would be echoed by his successors, Benedict mourned that "there are regions in which the Catholic faith has been introduced for centuries, without indigenous clergy being as yet to be found there" and scolded missionaries for placing national values above those of religion. In 1926, Pius XI reemphasized this theme in Rerum Ecclesiae, along with ordaining large numbers of native clergy. "Anyone who looks upon these natives as members of an inferior race," Pius XI warned, "makes a grievous mistake." Papal statements were primarily directed toward church officials in Africa and China, but African-American Catholics, as well as Catholic liberals generally, understandably viewed them as applicable to the American situation. (The phrase "spirit of the Encyclical" was used by one enthusiast for an African-American clergy.) Such hopes were supported by the publication of articles on African-American Catholics in the Vatican newspaper and support from the apostolic delegate.

Indeed, Vatican officials, disturbed by the lack of African-American clergy and reports of discrimination, were already prodding southern bishops into funding an African-American seminary, as well as discussing "bishops for the colored people." American bishops reacted strongly to what one prelate termed "African Cahenslyism" — a pointed reference to the fierce late nineteenth-century dispute over whether German Catholics, led by Peter Cahensly, would receive a separate hierarchical structure. The American (largely Irish) episcopacy had thwarted these German efforts, just as they energetically used their influence to defeat similar appeals to Rome by Polish-American and African-American Catholics. Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia made the link explicit by warning his brethren in 1920 that if the Poles received their own bishops, the Indians, African-Americans, French-Canadians and Italians would quickly form a line.


That neither African-Americans nor Poles received their own hierarchical structure is less interesting than the window these arguments open onto Catholic thinking on matters of group identity. Crucially, the primary "race" problem for American Catholics before the 1940s was the physical and cultural integration of the various Euro-American groups into the parishes and neighborhoods of the urban North, not conflicts between "blacks" and "whites." These broad notions of "race" are evident in documents ranging from a 1920 Carnegie Foundation report describing how "the great mass of [Catholic] immigrants belong to racial churches of their own" to the 1943 conclusion of a Boston diocesan historian that "the relations between the various racial groups in the Archdiocese have remained singularly harmonious" (even as he entitled a section of the work, "newer Catholic races"). The language used by pastor Luigi Giambastiani of Chicago's St. Philip Benizi parish in a 1922 parish bulletin is typical. "It is true that some idealists dream of an American millennium when all races will be found fused into one new American race — but in the meantime it is good that each one think of his own. ... Italians be united to your churches ... give your offering to the Italian churches who need it ... the Irish, Polish, and Germans work for their own churches, do the same yourself ... the Italian church ought to be not only a symbol of glory for you, but a symbol of faith and race."

The city's Back of the Yards area physically exemplified Father Giambastiani's vision. There residents could choose between eleven Catholic churches in the space of little more than a square mile — two Polish, one Lithuanian, one Italian, two German, one Slovak, one Croatian, two Irish, and one Bohemian. Together, the church buildings soared over the frame houses and muddy streets of the impoverished neighborhood in a triumphant display of architectural and theological certitude.

Each parish was a small planet whirling through its orbit, oblivious to the rest of the ecclesiastical solar system. The two Irish churches were the "territorial" parishes — theoretically responsible for all Catholics in the area. As a practical matter, however, all churches — formally territorial or not — tended to attract parishioners of the same national background. The very presence of the church and school buildings encouraged parishioners to purchase homes nearby, helping to create Polish, Bohemian, Irish, and Lithuanian enclaves within the larger neighborhood.

The situation hardly fostered neighborhood unity. Seventy percent of area residents, according to one estimate, were Catholic, but when activist Saul Alinsky began organizing the area in the late 1930s he observed that the various clergy "had nothing but scorn for their fellow priests." A Washington Post reporter agreed: "the Lithuanians favored the Poles as enemies, the Slovaks were anti-Bohemian. The Germans were suspected by all four nationalities. The Jews were generally abominated and the Irish called everyone else a 'foreigner.' "

Most of the parishes also included a parochial school staffed by an order of nuns of the same ethnicity as the parish in which they served. The predominantly Irish Sisters of Mercy staffed the parish school at St. Gabriel's, the Polish Felician sisters ran Sacred Heart, and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Heart of Mary taught in the school financed by the Bohemian parish of SS. Cyril and Methodius. As the Irish and German population drifted away toward new parishes, Eastern European newcomers resolutely maintained their own schools instead of filling the vacant slots in once booming Irish or German schools.

This Chicago patchwork reflected the complexities of transplanting a European institution, the parish, to American soil. From the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century onward, canon law stressed that the parish served all of the souls living within its boundaries — a conception that implicitly assumed all of those souls were Catholic, as might be the case in rural France, Ireland, Italy, and Poland. The term had a geographical as well as religious meaning. Technically, a parish could even exist without parishioners, so long as its boundaries were clear.

The Council of Trent also recognized, however, that a "large community of distinct national or racial character" needed priests who could administer the sacraments in an intelligible manner. In America, these national parishes became the conscious mechanism used to maintain a religious hold on non-English-speaking immigrants even as the faith lost ground among the European working class. Communicants heard the gospel in their native tongue, worshiped with other immigrants and melded European with American customs.

This grudging acceptance of diversity made the experience in Chicago's Back of the Yards area different from that of the rest of the urban north in degree, not kind. A 1916 U.S. census survey revealed 2,230 Catholic parishes using only a foreign language in their services, while another 2,535 alternated between English and the parishioners' native tongue. Towns as small as Bristol, Rhode Island — population 11,159 in 1940 — formally divided its Catholic population into Irish, Italian, and Portuguese parishes. Detroit's Bishop Michael Gallagher, himself the son of Irish immigrants, authorized the founding of 32 national parishes (out of a total of 98) as late as the 1918-1929 period. In 1933, Detroit Catholics could hear the gospel preached in twenty-two different languages.

Indeed, recent writing suggests that episcopal attempts to quash national parishes, schools, and societies only strengthened national identities by creating a sense of shared victimization. A furious battle in the late 1920s between a Providence bishop committed to a centralization of parish finances and instruction in English, and French-Canadian Catholics dedicated to the survival of their culture, resulted in court cases, protests, and fervent appeals to the apostolic delegate. The pattern was similar in northeastern Pennsylvania. When an Irish-American bishop attempted to prohibit the Christmas midnight mass during the 1930s (due to what he perceived as unseemly drinking by Polish groups before the liturgy), thirty-four delegations of Poles immediately complained to the bishop and the apostolic delegate. As one participant in the revolt noted, such quick actions "[gave] proof that we will not permit anyone to destroy a national dignity, pride and traditions."

Rather than face outright revolt, bishops working with national groups generally assigned an auxiliary bishop or senior cleric to handle pastoral appointments and mediate intramural disputes. At times even this was insufficient. Polish priests, for example, formed national federations and periodically sent complaints about discrimination to authorities in Rome. One 1915 statement warned of ominous consequences if Poles were to be "deprived of the care of a Bishop from among our own race." The most serious episode resulted in a demand for greater autonomy for Polish parishes, Polish curricula in diocesan seminaries, and Polish bishops as a counterweight to the power of "Americanizing bishops." One section of the appeal was entitled, "Serious Misunderstandings Between Catholic Poles and the American Clergy."

Relationships between the hierarchy and Italian Catholics were equally strained. American Catholic leaders viewed Italian Catholics, in contrast to the fervent, if troublesome, Poles, as negligent communicants. The "Italian problem" became a topic in clerical journals and frustrated bishops alternated between subsidizing Italian parishes and schools and issuing edicts for more financial support. In Chicago, thirteen times more Polish children than Italian children were enrolled in parochial schools by 1930, even though Poles outnumbered Italians by only two to one. The New York City pastor of Nativity Church, Father Bernard Reilly, informed his archbishop in 1917 that "the Italians are not a sensitive people like our own. When they are told that they are about the worst Catholics that ever came to this country, they don't resent it or deny it. ... The Italians are callous as regards religion."

As Father Reilly's comments suggest, however, one of the main obstacles to Italian participation in the American Catholic Church was the same national hostility experienced by the Poles. For the first Italian immigrants, special masses were often held in the basement of the parish church. At Transfiguration parish in lower Manhattan, Father Feretti celebrated three Sunday masses for Italians in the basement even as Father McLoughlin ran the main church upstairs. The parish history reports that "Father McLoughlin did his best to make the two races coalesce, by compelling the Italians to attend services in the upper church, but found that far better results could be obtained by having the two peoples worship separately." Father James Groppi, growing up as one of twelve children across from Immaculate Conception parish in Milwaukee recalled watching the Irish parishioners troop into Sunday mass while the Italians gathered with an Italian priest in a shoemaker's shop across the street. An Italian-American interviewed by a social worker in Pittsburgh refused to leave her neighborhood because she would then have to attend an "American" church. "I want my own religion for the children," she explained.

Given these difficulties with Poles, Italians, and other national groups, the few steps taken toward weakening national identities were understandably tentative ones. Only in 1921 did the National Catholic Welfare Conference form a bureau "to rank with and be recognized as the equal of other national immigrant aid organizations." The formation of the National Conference of Catholic Charities produced less a national organization than a federation of wary partners. "How often," lamented Reverend John O'Grady in 1931, "is it said that this organization or that institution is 'Irish' or 'German'?" One non-Catholic researcher commented disparagingly in 1938 upon the proliferation of children's homes in Pittsburgh, arguing that the "uneven balancing of needs among Polish, Italian, Irish-American, German, and other national groups in the Catholic community" resulted in inadequate funds for the most basic care. Fifty-five percent of Catholics in Chicago worshiped at national parishes in 1936, only a slight decrease from 65 percent in 1916. In addition, over 80 percent of the clergy (100 percent of the Poles and Lithuanians) received assignments in parishes matching their own national background.


Excerpted from Parish Boundaries by John T. McGreevy. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: A Catholic World in America
2: "Race" and the Immigrant Church
3: Catholics and the Second World War
4: Neighborhood Transition in a Changing Church
5: Community Organization and Urban Renewal
6: Washington and Rome
7: Civil Rights and the Second Vatican Council
8: Racial Justice and the People of God
9: Catholic Freedom Struggle

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