A Magnificent Description of the Immigrant Church of 1900-1950

The great influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe brought exponential growth to the Catholic population of this country, making Catholicism the single largest religious group by far. Those Catholic immigrants gathered together in ethnic parishes, creating ethnic neighborhoods in which faith and culture were knitted together. They sought survival in a land that seemed at times to be hostile to them and their faith. This caused Catholics to be fiercely loyal to the faith and made the parish the hub of the community, the center around which all else revolved.

Alas, this vivid reality receded between the 1950s and the 1980s, leaving large structures behind that have proved difficult to maintain and are now being closed in large numbers. Sweeping social changes, a cultural revolution, and the slow assimilation of Catholics into the wider American culture led to the demise of a system that is hard not to admire for its organization and effectiveness.

How things collapsed so quickly is a matter for some speculation, but even within the genius of the ethnic Catholic system, there were the seeds of its own destruction, for the fierce clinging of Catholics to their faith was as much due to ethnic bonds as it was to the religion itself.

As we shall see in the description below, and as most bishops can attest, shepherding Catholics is much like herding cats. This struggle is not a new one. It was well on display even in the glory years. Despite the outward appearances of deep unity, there were many fissures just beneath the surface.

As a brief study of this, I would like to quote somewhat extensively from the first chapter of a book by John McGreevy: Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th Century Urban North. McGreevy rather vividly describes the strength of the immigrant Church but also the more negative trends within that powerful system of ethnic Catholicism.

The author’s work is presented in bold, black italics, while my remarks are in plain red text. I have reworked the order of some of his reflections and am presenting excerpts from a much longer chapter. I hope you’ll find his description of the urban ethnic Church as thrilling and vivid as I do.

[From the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century] successive waves of European immigrants peopled a massive and impressive church largely in the northern cities of America. In 1920, Catholics in Chicago could worship at 228 Catholic parishes … The [area of the city called] “back of the yards” area physically exemplified this. There, residents could choose between 11 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. … Their church buildings soared over the frame houses and muddy streets of the impoverished neighborhood in a triumphant display of architectural and theological certitude. I have always appreciated that older Church buildings reflect a time of greater theological certitude. While one may criticize the presence of opulent church structures in poor neighborhoods, the immigrants built them eagerly, demonstrating a priority of the faith that is much less evident today.

[Even as late as the] 1950s, a Detroit study found 70% of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week as opposed to only 33% of the city’s white Protestants and 12% of the city’s Jews. Catholics really used to pack the churches. I remember as a youth if you were late for Mass you had to stand in the back.

The Catholic parishes, whether they were Polish, Italian, Portuguese, or Irish, simply dominated the life and activities of the community with quite popular and well attended programs. Yale sociologists investigating in the 1930s, professed amazement at the ability of priest to define norms of everyday social behavior for the church’s members.

The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local. Many parishes sponsored enormous neighborhood carnivals each year. Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations including youth groups, mothers’ clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations—each with a priest moderator, the requisite fundraisers, and group masses. Parish sports teams, even for the youngest boys, shaped parish identity, with fierce (and to outsiders incongruent) rivalries developing in sports leagues between parishes. CYO rivalries were legendary even into the 1980s in many areas.

These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities included a church (often of remarkable scale), a convent, a parochial school, a rectory, and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums. Even hostile observers professed admiration for the marvelous organization and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church, which carefully provided every precinct, ward, and district with churches, cathedrals, and priests. The parish I attended as a boy in Glenview, IL (North Chicago) had a rectory that was externally a replica of Mt. Vernon. The parish plant took up an entire city block. Every grade of the parochial school had its own separate building. There was an indoor pool, a credit union, a large indoor “playdium” that allowed for everything from roller-skating to basketball. The Church and convent were also magnificent.

Brooklyn alone contained 129 parishes and over 100 Elementary schools. In New York City more generally, 45 orders of religious men, ranging from the Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed 25 hospitals. The clergy and members of religious orders supervised over 100 high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes, seminaries, and orphanages was daunting.

St. Sabina in Chicago was a typical example of an immigrant parish. The parish was founded in 1916 upon request by Irish-Americans. The male members of the 7000-member parish were mostly policemen, streetcar operators, lower management persons, and teachers. Within the tenure of the very first pastor, the parish erected a church costing $600,000 and contracted the work to members of the parish to provide jobs during the depression. They built the school, convent, and rectory as well as founding a staggering array of athletic, religious, and social organizations. By 1937 the Parish plant also included a community center with a full basketball court that seated 1800 people. Attendance at roller-skating shows often climbed to over 10,000. Parishioners packed the church and hall for 11 separate Sunday masses, and ushers organized large crowds at multiple Friday evening novena services. $600,000 in the 1930s was an enormous sum of money, equivalent to nearly 9 million in 2013 dollars. I am presuming that the $600,000 was for the whole plant, not just the Church.

[The Catholic system of neighborhood-based parishes had little equivalence among the Protestants.] When examining the splendidly organized system constructed by Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the parochial chaos in the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups had experienced. The general Protestant lack of geographical parishes made it impossible to know who should be responsible, or to hold anyone responsible for the church and of any given area. Synagogues faced similar dilemmas. Most synagogues drew members from a broad area, and competed with neighboring synagogues in terms of ritual and programs.

[In the immigrant years, the Catholic parish made, cemented, and ruled over a local neighborhood]. An observer noted how the church building occupied an entire block, adding that the building’s resounding bells, with its immense throngs of worshipers, with its great tower so built that illumined, it reveals by night the outlines of the cross help define the area. Put another way, the neighborhoods were created not found. For the parishioners, the neighborhood was all Catholic, given the cultural ghetto constructed by the parish. Yes, the Church was the true hub of the community.

Catholics enacted this religiously informed neighborhood identity through both ritual and physical presence. A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish was found in the answer of Catholics (and some non-Catholics) to the question “where you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names—Visitation, Resurrection, St. Lucy’s, etc. All of this meant that Catholics were significantly more likely to remain in a particular neighborhood than the non-Catholics. [And Catholic neighborhoods resisted strong demographic shifts and swings much longer than other urban neighborhoods.] Naming the neighborhood for the parish was common in Chicago.

For American Catholics, neighborhood, parish, and religion were constantly intertwined. Catholic parishes routinely sponsored parades and processions through the streets of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. Catholic leaders also deliberately created a Catholic counterpart for virtually every secular organization. The assumption was that the Catholic faith could not flourish independent of the Catholic milieu; schools, societies, and religious organizations were seen as pieces of a larger cultural project. The instinct that faith and culture must be intertwined is a sound one. It is clear that as Catholic culture waned, so did the faith. More broadly, as a Judeo-Christian culture in the U.S. has waned, so has belief and practice of the faith.

[Catholic life was also far deeper in daily life than most Protestant expressions.] Where both Jews and Protestants emphasized the reading of text, Catholics developed multiple routes to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, willing to endow seemingly mundane daily events with the possibility of grace. When asked, “Where is God?” Catholic children responded “Everywhere!” God was most visible during the Mass, when the parish community shared Christ’s body and blood. But God was also visible in the saints lining the walls of the church, the shrines dotting the yards of Catholic homes, the statue of Mary carted from house to house, the local businesses shuttering their doors on the afternoon of Good Friday, the cross on the church steeple looming above the neighborhood row houses, the priest blessing individual homes, the nuns watching pupils on the playground while silently reciting the rosary, the religious processions through the streets, and the bells of the church ringing each day over the length of the parish. A magnificent description of sacramental imagination here. It is the genius of Catholicism. Unfortunately, to our peril, we have lost of lot of it. Thankfully, though, we have recovered some of it in recent years.

McGreevy then goes on to describe some of the fissures that would later come home to roost. One of these was a fierce independence and near refusal to live within the wider Church:

Each parish was a small planet whirling through its orbit, oblivious to the rest of the ecclesiastical solar system. … All parishes, formerly territorial or not, tend 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.

[But] The situation hardly fostered neighborhood unity. Observers noted that various clergy had nothing but scorn for their fellow priests. Pastors were notorious for refusing to cooperate with (or even visit) neighboring parishes. A Washington Post reporter agreed, “the Lithuanians favored the Poles as enemies, the Slovaks are anti-Bohemian. The Germans were suspected by all four nationalities. The Jews were generally abominated, and the Irish called everyone else a foreigner.” It was a kind of extreme parochialism.

Most of the parishes also included parochial schools staffed by an order of nuns of the same ethnicity as the parish in which they served. Eastern European newcomers resolutely maintained their own schools instead of filling vacant slots in nearby Irish or German schools. Even I, born in 1961, remember how Irish and Italian Catholics were barely on speaking terms with one another. In one parish I knew, an Irish girl married an Italian man, causing quite a stir. After their marriage, the couple could not worship in either of their home parishes, but had to find a third.

A 1916 Census survey revealed 2230 Catholic parishes using only a foreign language in their services, while another 2535 alternated between English and the parishioners’ native tongue. Even small towns divided the 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. In 1933, Detroit Catholics could hear the Gospel preached in 22 different languages. It was a kind of Balkanized scene.

Episcopal attempts to quash national parishes, schools, and societies only strengthened national identities. After one conflict with the local bishop and the Polish community, one participant in the revolt noted that such revolts “gave proof that we will not permit anyone to destroy national dignity, pride, and traditions. Another statement from a Polish group warned of ominous consequences if Poles were to be “deprived of the care of a Bishop from among our own race.” Cardinal Medeiros of Boston was never really accepted by that Archdiocese because he was not Irish. His painful tenure there (1970-1983) is detailed by Philp Lawler in his book The Faithful Departed. And this was long after ethnic rivalries had largely abated in the U.S. The fact is, most American bishops knew that they had a huge mess on their hands; beginning in the 1950s, they began to limit the formation of national parishes and even outright closed some that were smaller and more contentious. To this day a few breakaway Polish National Churches still refuse the authority of the local bishop.

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. Outright revolt was a real possibility. Rebellion against Church authority did not begin in 1968. It had roots going way back. True dissent from Church teaching was rare, but the rebellion against lawful Church authority likely set the stage for later revolt against what that authority taught.

Despite Episcopal concerns … 55 percent of Catholics in Chicago worshiped at national parishes as late as 1936. In addition, over 80 percent of the clergy received assignments in parishes matching their own national background.

Overall the period of ethnic Catholicism is glorious to behold. Such a vibrant and tight knit expression and experience of the faith! But, it would seem, there was also a dark side.

The fierce and proud independence of the ethnic parishes reacted poorly with the rebellion against authority that was coming in American culture. Today, many of the problems that existed then have only grown: the resistance to the authority of the bishop, the insistence on a perfect “designer parish,” and the tendency to tuck the faith behind other loyalties that have taken the place of ethnicity (e.g., politics). These things were certainly simmering in the vibrant ethnic years, and sometimes they weren’t just simmering—they were right out in the open. Yes, shepherding Catholics is like herding cats.

Still, I’m sorry I missed that period of time. At the end of the day, though, we ought to resist overly idealizing any era. Scripture says, Say not, “How is it that former times were better than these?” For it is not in wisdom that you ask this (Eccles 7:10).

Pastors are not Interchangeable Parts – A Reflection on an Article By George Weigel

072313George Weigel recently published an article in First Things that offers a good critique of a common practice in most U.S. Dioceses, that of moving pastors every six to ten years. While some priests are lucky enough to stay longer, most find themselves moving every six or more years. Frankly, both priests and parishes usually suffer as a result.

There are, of course times when it is a good idea for a pastor to move on. Sometimes he is a poor match for the parish in question, sometimes there has been a change in the parish for which he is ill-equipped (e.g. demographic changes, language issues etc). Sometimes health and age are a factor. And sometimes there is a sense by the priest and/or the parish that the pastor’s work there is done and that a fresh perspective will be healthy for all.

But more often than not the change of a pastor is at best stressful, and at worst a serious shock to the priest and parish in question.

Before I say more, let’s look at some of what George Weigel has to say. As usual I will print his remarks in bold, black, italic text, and make some remarks of my own in plain red text. I present excerpts. His full article is here: Pastors are not Interchangeable Parts

Priests’ councils and clergy personnel boards were set up after Vatican II to give operational meaning to the council’s teaching that priests form a kind of presbyteral college around the local bishop and share with him in the governance of the diocese; such bodies were also intended to provide some protection for priests against the whims and crotchets of arbitrary or authoritarian bishops. Both were laudable goals. Yet…the result, too often, is to intensify, not diminish, clerical careerism and ambition.

OK, perhaps there is some of this. But to be fair, I think most personnel boards try to be even handed, and work hard to match pastoral openings with perceived gifts and talents of priests.

I have served on such boards and generally it is hard and honest work. It is even harder today, since most dioceses are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation where there simply aren’t enough priests to meet all the needs.

Further, certain parishes present complexities that must be handled by an experienced pastor. Some parishes are bigger and have schools. Some have special ethnic qualities. Others have debt, and need a steady proven hand at the helm. Other parishes are small, and can be good starter parishes for a new pastor.

Frankly there isn’t a lot of room for careerism and ambition. It is “all hands on deck” to meet an increasingly critical shortage. While vocations are up, the pipeline hasn’t delivered enough new priests to overcome the death and retirement of older priests. Addressing critical needs, and even filling gaps mid year, due to sudden illness or loss, is the usual work of personnel boards these days. It more about bailing water than paving paths for careers and satisfying ambitions.

That is surely what’s happening when priests’ councils or clergy personnel boards, composed of priests working under the bishop, treat parishes as square holes into which pastors are fitted like interchangeable pegs. There are “good parishes” and “tough parishes”; good parishes are given out as rewards; tough parishes are assigned as a matter of sharing burdens within a presbyterate (or worse, as warnings or punishments); and all of this happens according to a fixed time-table in which pastors have specific terms of office It’s…hard to imagine anything farther removed from the New Evangelization.

I suppose all dioceses have certain “plum parishes.” But frankly they are fewer, and the list of “likely suspects” to fill the plum parishes isn’t what it used to be. Men are made pastors younger and younger, and there aren’t the ranks of priests that is really the catalyst for a lot of cronyism.

From my own work on personnel boards the more critical question is whether a given priest would fit the profile of the parish, and the needs of the people well, not merely that “he has earned it” or “he is a prominent guy who needs a prominent assignment.” 

But it is Mr Weigel’s last statement that most rings true and critical to me: the problem of assignment changes occurring on a fixed time-table, in which pastors have fixed terms of office. And he is most correct to declare this as highly problematic in relation to the New Evangelization.

In my own diocese, pastors have terms of six years. After that time, we can be moved, but this does not necessarily mean we will be moved,  only that we can. But frankly, after six years, most pastors know our time is short, and that we could be asked at any time to move. It is unnerving and tends to shut down any long-range planning after the six year mark. Sad too, because it takes a good four or five years to get a good enough sense of the parish and people to do good long-range planning. But by that time the clock has substantially ebbed.

Mr Weigel articulates the problems well in this next paragraph.

As I wrote in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, building the Church of the New Evangelization takes time and patience in a parish setting. The time involved will vary from situation to situation, and it certainly can’t be measured in un-renewable terms of office for pastors. Moreover, once Evangelical Catholicism has taken hold in a parish

the gospel is being preached with conviction, the liturgy is being celebrated with dignity, the parish is attracting many new Catholics, religious and priestly vocations and solid Catholic marriages are being nurtured, the works of charity and service are flourishing, and the parish finances are in order—

— moving a pastor out because “his term is up” is about as old Church, as institutional-maintenance Church, as you can get…. There is no reason to let clergy personnel policy be shaped by anything other than the demands of the New Evangelization in a challenging cultural moment.

Actually its not an “old Church” practice at all. It came about in the 1970s. Prior to that time, pastors had great stability and often stayed twenty to thirty years. It was the age of giants! Only in the past thirty to forty years has the idea of a “term of office” set up.

At any rate, Mr Weigel is certainly correct that the needs of the New Evangelization are best served by greater stability in leadership, and this principle should, other things being equal, hold sway.

It takes a long time to get a parish in order, and many parishes have fallen into disorder in the past decades. And even once that is done, it takes even longer to get the parish focused on what really matters most. Yes it takes time! Six years just isn’t enough.

Thus a priority task for the local bishop as agent of the New Evangelization is the re-evangelization of his priests, especially in long-established dioceses where the mindset of institutional-maintenance Catholicism and the habits of clerical careerism and ambition are most likely to be deeply entrenched. For priests, too, can be tempted to think of each other as interchangeable parts, some of those parts more popular than others. As long as they do, clergy personnel policy will be an obstacle, not an asset, to the New Evangelization.

It is certainly true that maintenance Catholicism has got to go. Too many priests and parishes have a “open the door and hope they come” mentality, where an shrinking and aging group is being served, but no new ground is being broken. Many parishes have seriously eroded and many are past critical. Business as usual will not due.

Bishops and priests do need do need to be re-evangelized and retooled. But having done so, (and many younger priests do GET the new evangelization), a priest and pastor will need time to train and reignite an often moribund, business as usual parish to think and act differently. Frequent shifts in pastoral leadership may well weaken whatever gains are made by a re-evangelized clergy.

His point that pastors are not just interchangeable parts is very powerful. Priests are not meant to be mere administrators or even just sacramental providers. We are to be the spiritual father of our people. Priests are to deeply love their people. And pray God they love him too.

Thus the transfer of a pastor is like a death, or at least it ought to be, if priest and people learn to love each other as they ought. Death is very traumatic and some parishes do not easily or quickly recover from the often sudden loss of a pastor. It often takes years for a parish to get back in rhythm with a new pastor. That’s right, pastors are not interchangeable parts.

Finally, a word of sympathy for bishops in this regard. Frankly, most of them are making the best of a difficult situation. My own Archbishop prefers stability for pastors and tries to maintain it if possible. But, as stated above, the combination of complex pastoral situations combined with fewer priests “on the bench” makes his task difficult.

In the “emergency room” of most hospitals certain protocols have to be set aside due to the urgency of the moment.

Priest Personnel meetings increasingly look like emergency rooms: “Fr. Jones” has stage four pancreatic cancer and must step aside immediately. His parish is bilingual and has a school that is in financial difficulty, and the principal just quit last week under allegations of financial irregularities. Who can take his parish?! And suddenly the dominoes start falling as one experienced bilingual priest is moved in, and now his parish needs filling, but has “needs” as well. So another must step in. And, before you know it, five parishes have been affected to close the gap.

Pray for vocations! We need “a bench.” Currently most dioceses not only do not have a bench of ready players, they don’t even have all the positions of the field filled.

But George Weigel is right. We have to work hard to find an maintain stability for pastors where the match between pastor and parish is good.

How say you?

Thanks to Patrick Coffin of Catholic Answers. I was honored to be on his show last night and we briefly discussed this article, which I had missed.

This video speaks of priests as soldiers. And it is true, we are soldiers who need to have a fight in us. But we are first and foremost Fathers who love our family, love our parish.


One of the most frustrating things about working in ministry is encapsulated in the following email:

“Hi Laura, I live in DC and I attend [church x] but I must confess I still hop around between parishes trying to find my niche, so that keeps me back from getting involved in any specific community.” (emphasis added)

There is a vast difference in finding your niche and creating your niche! How can you create a vibrant parish community?

  • Do you think the choir needs help? Join it!
  • Does the way the Word of God is proclaimed lack interest? Use your talent and be a lector!
  • Does your homilist miss the mark when trying to connect the Word of God to the congregation? Establish a relationship with your priest or deacon, then suggest ways he could improve!
  • Does the church’s interior not reflect glory of God’s True Presence? Donate funds to help refurbish the church!
  • Do you complain about a lack of attention to social justice issues and community outreach? Volunteer to start a committed group!
  • Has another parishioner never introduced him or herself to you? Make the first move to welcome them!

The list goes on!

This is what Catholic stewardship means: to survey our gifts and offer our time, talent, and treasure to building up the Kingdom of God. For those of you reading this, I’d like to take a quick survey.

  • What do you complain about the most at your parish?
  • What can you do to remedy the situation?
  • Let us know if creating a vibrant parish community is on your priority list!

Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. 1Cor. 14:12