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Terry Golway, editor, Catholics in New York: Society, Culture, and Politics, 1808-1946, New York: Fordham University Press and Museum of the City of New York, 2008.

Reviewed by Frank J. Cavaioli
Farmingdale State, SUNY (emeritus)

Published in conjunction with the two hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, this study is a major contribution to the field of Catholic history and local history. The accompanying exhibition of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York provided the general population an opportunity to view and appreciate the advances made by Catholics who had in their early history suffered hostility from the ruling society. Leaders such as Bishop John Hughes fought for acceptance, equality, and influence. There can be little doubt of the central role the Church has played in the nation’s greatest city. This volume documents the rise of Catholicism from the perspective of various individuals, events, and developments.

Of course, Catholics, especially missionaries, were present during the American colonial period, but they were few and experienced the enmity of Old World prejudices. The reader learns that from a single Catholic parish in Manhattan of about two hundred members in 1785, the Church in New York City evolved into 442 parishes serving forty-two percent of its residents in the 1990s. A remarkable transformation! This collection of essays lays out a vivid mosaic of  “Family, Parish, & Community,” “Institutions and Organizations,” “Catholics in Labor and Politics,” with an afterward entitled  “The New Catholic New York.”  

Pete Hamill reminisces about his family and his views as a Catholic growing up in New York City. Mary Elizabeth Brown highlights the Italian influence on Catholicism in the City. Italians brought distinctive religious customs: the feast, architectural contributions, home creches, diversity of saints. Statistical data are included. Labeled the “Italian Problem,” they worked hard to merge into the American Church. Patrick McNamara examines the Church’s growth in Brooklyn and Queens, while David Gibson chronicles the development of an Irish immigrant church, St. Bridget’s , which became St. Brigid during the rectorship of Father Patrick F. McSweeney (1877–1907). Bishop John Hughes laid the church cornerstone in 1848.

Alex Storozynski relates the pride of New York’s Polish Catholics when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II and how they intertwined “nationality and religion.” He traces their historical development in New York City. The spiritual and charitable contributions of Mother Frances X. Cabrini are explained in her letter dated July 20, 1907. Tyler Anbinder shows the importance of the Emigrant Savings Bank as it became an outgrowth of the Irish Emigrant Society, formed to assist Irish immigrants in the 1840s, and how, from original records, its history reveals details of their social and economic life.

Bernadette McCauley’s essay, "Apart and Among, Sisters in the Lives of Catholic New Yorkers,” explores the contributions made by women religious whose work in education, health care, social welfare, and orphanages helped to make life more humane in the City. With race a central issue of American society, James Thomas Keane presents the life of Jesuit John LaFarge and the work of the Catholic Interracial Council, showing how LaFarge advanced the goal of racial harmony between white and black Catholics.

Peter Quinn relates the political career of his father who, as a dedicated Democrat from the Bronx, served as an assemblyman, congressman, and judge, and died with just $16,000 of savings. It was a time when Democrat meant Catholic, especially during the New Deal years of the 1930s and leading up to Vatican II. Despite his father’s civic leadership, life revolved around the Church, but his heroes were both Catholic and non-Catholic. Salvatore J. LaGumina analyzes the ethnic factor in New York City politics. He relates the successes of early Irish Catholic leaders who overcame the wall of nativism, and how Italians became a new source of political power. Edward T. O’Donnell tells of the rise and fall of Reverend Edward McGlynn, a liberal and independent thinker. He was a social radical who defied arch-conservative Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan (1839–1902).

James Fisher presents the struggle of Catholic dockworkers, union leaders, managers, and priests who fought to bring Catholic social teaching to the City’s West Side piers. Two related essays, “Spanish Harlem Welcomes an Irishman,” by William A. Donohue, and “A New Mission, Cardinal Spellman and New York’s Puerto Ricans,” by David A. Badillo, analyze the changing face of the City’s diversity as a new wave of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America make their mark. The final essay, Dan Barry’s  “Green Grass, Cape Cods, and Suburban Catholicism,” describes the movement from the urban center to suburbia after World War II from a personal point of view. The new Long Island Diocese of Rockville Center was created in 1957 to care for their spiritual needs. The new Catholic middle class was now enjoying a new pattern of life in a new physical setting.

Catholics in New York was produced with the cooperation of Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese. The volume includes photographs and images, some rare, that enhance its value to the reader. Most of them are of high quality.

The cover photo of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Easter time, 1941, appears too dark and lacks detail. An essay on the rise and influence of the City’s Catholic universities could have been included because of the role they played. For example, St. John’s University, founded in 1870 in Brooklyn and now located in Queens, contributed significantly to educating immigrant children and minorities to take their place in the middle class and help advance the work of the Church in society. Similarly, other institutions of higher learning could have provided relevant information:  Fordham (1841), Manhattan (1853), St. Francis (1884), St. Joseph’s 1916), and Marymount (1936).

In summary, Catholics in New York weaves a meaningful story of this largest Christian community in the nation’s most important city. To explore the history of the Catholic Church in New York City is to learn the history of this vital urban center. 

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