First in an occasional series

In 1790, only a year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, just 35,000 of the new nation's 3 million citizens were Catholic. The addition of Texas and California to the union in the 1800s added large Spanish-speaking Catholic populations. A midcentury famine in Ireland, along with revolution in the German states, would drive the first big wave of Catholic immigrants to these shores. By 1900, there were 12 million Catholics in a country of 66 million.

Then the floodgates opened.

In the first part of the 20th century, up until the early ’30s, the American economy, particularly the manufacturing sector, was the envy of the world. Catholics streamed in through Ellis Island from southern and eastern Europe, along with French-speaking Canada, seeking jobs and the chance for a better, more economically secure life. The flow continued unabated until the Great Depression (Ellis Island remained in operation until 1943) and gathered new momentum in the postwar years.

Many immigrants stayed close to where they landed, transforming New York City into a checkerboard of ethnic neighborhoods, but many others continued on to points west.

In Chicago, for example, by World War II there were more Irish than in Dublin, more Germans than in Berlin, more Italians than in Pisa and more Bohemians than in Prague. Today there are 62 million Catholics in the United States, more than any other single Christian denomination, including, by some counts, 18 million inactive Catholics (they've been called the “second-largest denomination”).

Low-Profile Assimilation

It was in Chicago that the James Mullooly family, a fairly typical Catholic immigrant family, settled. James and Anne-Mary Devaney Mullooly were first-generation Americans, children of parents who left Ireland in the 1850s.

James and Anne-Mary lived on Chicago's South Side in St. Brendan's parish. While 100% Irish-American, they attended daily Mass at Sacred Heart, a German parish, because it was several blocks closer to home.

It was not an especially happy choice. The German congregation didn’t welcome these Irish strangers with open arms, and Anne-Mary found the German sisters in the school stricter than the Irish sisters in her parish.

Like most other Irish of their generation, members of the Mullooly family worked as laborers. James was a house painter for the city of Chicago. Not until the next generation would they enter the ranks of professionals as teachers and managers. In this, they, too, followed the general pattern for immigrants of the time. Catholics did much of the heavy labor in Chicago, the “city of broad shoulders,” as the poet Carl Sandburg called it.

The Catholic Church was the center of their life. Limited resources of money, clergy and religious challenged the Church. In response, it focused its efforts on providing immigrant Catholics with the sacraments as a way of keeping them in the fold.

At that time, the Church didn’t have the time or resources to look outward to the larger society, which viewed Catholics with suspicion and, occasionally, outright hostility. As a result, Catholics sought solace and solidarity among themselves. Something of a “catacomb” mentality developed, and isolated Catholic neighborhoods came to be called “Catholic ghettos.”

In spite of the isolation, some faithful Catholics sensed that the Church needed to reach out to others with the truth of the faith.

In the 19th century, Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) founded the Paulist Fathers with the aim of converting Protestants — and, indeed, all of America — to the Catholic faith. Father Hecker was a good man for the job, as he was a convert to the Church from Protestantism himself. But by the 20th century, the pastoral needs were great among those already in the fold, and even the Paulists focused on ministering to Catholics.

Other pioneering efforts were made by Bishop James Gibbons (1834-1921). In 1876, while riding circuit on horseback to minister to the handful of Catholics in the Diocese of Richmond, Va., he preached and wrote to explain the Catholic faith to Protestants. Later, as the much-beloved archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons focused his efforts on saving the Catholic working class for the Church.

Bishop John Keane (1839-1918) was another pioneer who looked outward to the larger society. He helped found The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., as a place of rigorous scholarship and became its first rector. His dream was to help Catholics meet the world and “conquer it” for Christ.

Devotional Spirituality

The needs of immigrant Catholics dominated the Church until after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The Church was the center of their lives, with their spirituality largely centered on devotions, such as the rosary and novenas, and parish-community festivals. Eucharistic processions at Corpus Christi and Forty Hours were more devotional than liturgical. Marian devotion abounded, especially to the Immaculate Conception. Devotion to the Passion of Jesus, the Sacred Heart and saints such as Thérèse of Lisieux increased as well. May devotions to Mary and rosary-centered holy hours filled out the year.

Immigrant Catholics supported one another through mutual aid societies to provide help in times of sickness and death. Parish missions looked to moral reformation to strengthen the family unit. Many positive aspects of the immigrant spirituality — care for the needy, and men's and women's parish social clubs and confraternities — guarded against abandonment and promiscuity, yet maintained the protection of the “Catholic ghetto.” Catholics were secure in that ghetto and rarely looked out to others who were not part of the flock and who often looked down on them.

When Catholics looked outward during this time, they often did so by building Catholic churches and providing priests for rural America. Church building was the idea of Father Francis Kelly (1870-1944), founder of the Catholic Church Extension Society, and supplying priests the idea of Father William Howard Bishop (1885-1953), founder of the Home Missioners of America, also known as Glenmary. Progress was counted by a new church building or a priest in a formerly priestless county rather than by converts to the Catholic faith. Conversions were the goal of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, or Maryknoll, established in 1911, but these were converts in the foreign missions.

Out of the Ghetto

Even during this time, some Catholics felt called to come out of the “ghetto” and challenge the Church with a different vision of Catholic life. Others wanted to offer the non-Catholic world the Catholic vision to counter the materialism and depravity they saw in American culture. Dorothy Day (1897-1980) challenged Catholics to embrace social reform through the Catholic Worker movement, which she founded with Peter Maurin in the early 1930s. Her view of Catholicism was a radical one, calling for voluntary renunciation of unneeded goods in order to live in solidarity with the poor.

Day was no stranger to radical decisions. Earlier in her life, she had embraced the Catholic faith while searching for truth and meaning; she was baptized even though her common-law husband and father of her child abandoned her because of her decision. The Catholic Worker movement provided a strong vision for the Church, although it was not always appreciated by the majority. Day's uncompromising pacifism led many to abandon the movement during World War II.

Similar efforts were made through Friendship House, founded in Harlem in 1938 by Russian immigrant Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985). It later spread to other American cities, including Chicago and Washington, and set up headquarters in Canada. The movement called on Catholics to effect racial change.

A more traditional, but no less radical, approach was undertaken by Mother Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (see story on Page 1). Mother Katharine used her family fortune to found and staff vocational and training schools in which the sisters in her order ministered to these struggling Americans.

World War II and the GI Bill opened doors for Catholic Americans, by now the children and grandchildren of earlier immigrants. But, until after Vatican II, Catholics were still considered by many to be “set apart” from mainstream American society because of their loyalty to a “foreign power.”

The Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) argued for the acceptance of the American system of separation of church and state and was silenced by Rome in the 1950s for his writings. By the time of Vatican II, he was called to Rome at the behest of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. Father Murray's thought became a part of Vatican II's groundbreaking Declaration on Religious Liberty, which recognized the right of a nation (such as the United States) to separate church and state. This document made it clear that one could be a good American and a good Catholic at the same time.

Homogeny, for Better and Worse

The Church was not spared from the great social upheaval that marked American society in the 1960s. The ghetto mentality was gone and Catholics became indistinguishable from mainstream America — sometimes with disastrous effects on them and the Church. Sunday church attendance dropped from 80% before Vatican II to 50% after; today it's around 30%.

And what of the Mullooly family of Chicago, whose forebears emigrated from Ireland in the 1850s? Four generations have risen since the first arrivals.

Of the known surviving descendants, almost all are active in their Catholic faith. Only several admit to being inactives, and none has become Protestant or unchurched. As things go, this is a much better record than for the Church in the United States as a whole.

Anthony Bosnick lectures on history and writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland.