In New York City circa 1806, only one Catholic could be counted for every six non-Catholics. By the time the Civil War ended six decades later, half the metropolis was Catholic. Today more than 20 million Catholics live in the tri-state area.
A major new museum exhibition explores this development. “Catholics in New York, 1808-1946” has been on display at the Museum of the City of New York since mid-May and will run through the end of the year.
This is the second attraction of this kind this year. “Catholic Chicago” opened at the Chicago History Museum in March. (See “Sweet Home, Catholic Chicago” in the May 11-17 Register.)
The Manhattan exhibit emphasizes the importance of faith for Catholics, showing and telling how the Church met the spiritual and temporal needs of its members by providing the sacraments, spiritual guidance and — most conspicuously — a network of caring and representative institutions.
Some 400 artifacts and images were collected from the New York Archdiocese and many other contributors. Much of the exhibit is dedicated to the details that many will fondly recall from their own childhoods — school uniforms and report cards, trophies, first Communion outfits, parade sashes and banners. There’s also a collection of lapel buttons and posters promoting Catholic candidates to political office.
One item could be considered a second-class relic: a pew receipt signed by Ven. Pierre Toussaint.
New York Cardinal Edward Egan was the principal speaker during the opening reception.
“This exhibit comes at a wonderful time as we in the New York Archdiocese are celebrating our bicentennial,” he said. “This is a climax of our celebration — not just the presence of this magnificent collection of artifacts but also as a symbol of what has brought us to our present time.”
A fascinating bit of the city’s anti-Catholic beginnings is on display. Included is a copy of an infamous 1836 book, Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk, of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. This chronicled the supposed debauchery of nuns. The author turned out to be a prostitute who was exposed as a fraud and sent to prison.
A group of teenagers stop by the Nativist section and stood in rapt attention.
“I didn’t know we were persecuted like this,” one told the Register.
The exhibition warmly praises the well-known holy men and women who have served the Church in New York, including Mother Seton, Mother Cabrini, Father Isaac Hecker and Dorothy Day.
Jesuit Father James Martin, author of My Life With the Saints and a frequent guest on the Comedy Channel’s The Colbert Report, was also in attendance.
“I was glad the exhibit concentrated on the important contributions of religious sisters to ministry in New York City,” he said. “Priests get their credit, but sisters don’t get the recognition they deserve.”
Of special interest is a large computer monitor with an interactive database that maps the location of all Catholic schools in New York City. Museum archivist Gircomo Mirabella demonstrated its use to several visitors.
“We thought it would be interesting for the children who would be familiar with the technology but also to the adults who had actually gone to these Catholic schools,” he said.
One of the highlights of the show is the Children’s Chalice, a gilded silver chalice given by Archbishop John Hughes to the children of St. Bridget’s School in 1862.
Legionary Brother David Hoffpauir, 22, was impressed with the scope of the presentation.
“It’s an incredible exhibition,” he said. “It’s amazing to see such a great propagation of Catholic culture in a secularist society.”
The exhibit also chronicles the rise of Catholics as a force in New York politics. Of chief importance are William Grace, who in 1880 became New York’s first Catholic mayor; Congressman Vito Marcantonio (East Harlem) and Alfred Smith, New York State’s first Catholic governor — who also became the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party for president of the United States.
The exhibit highlights the contributions of the 69th Regiment, the “Fighting Irish,” which was formed originally to defend the nascent Catholic community. The division went on to serve in every military engagement from Bull Run to Iraq.
Ed Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, was also in attendance.
“This … portrays the incredible history of the Catholic Church here in New York City,” he said. “I credit the Church and its leaders, especially Cardinal O’Connor, for helping the city during our fiscal crisis of the ’70s and ’80s. It was the Church that kept its people in the city. This saved the city and I have always been grateful for this.”
Terry Golway, columnist and city editor of The New York Observer and a frequent contributor to other widely read publications, commented on the exhibit’s special focus on the variety of Catholic ethnicities in New York.
“The story of Catholic New York is often hidden behind ethnicity,” explained Golway. “We talk about ethnic groups like the Irish, Italians, Poles and Germans as if they are separate and distinct groups. They are, but of course, most Irish, Italians, Poles and Germans share something in common: their faith.”
Golway has published a companion book to the exhibit, Catholics in New York, through Fordham University Press. And over the course of the next few months, the museum will present a number of evening programs related to the exhibit.
Walking through the exhibit, Catholic visitors from New York — and all points north, south and west — will find new inspiration in old ways. And why not? The ways are not old. They’re timeless. Like the very Gospel that spawned them.
Stagnaro writes from
New York City.
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