Courtesy Center for Migration
Studies, New York
The story of
Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century IS the story of immigration.
Until about 1845, the Roman Catholic population of the United States was a
small minority of mostly English Catholics, who were often quite socially
accomplished. But when several years of devastating potato famine led
millions of Irish Catholics to flee to the United States in the mid 1840s,
the face of American Catholicism began to change drastically and
permanently. In the space of fifty years, the Catholic population in the
United States suddenly transformed from a tight-knit group of landowning,
educated aristocrats into an incredibly diverse mass of urban and rural
immigrants who came from many different countries, spoke different
languages, held different social statuses, and emphasized different parts of
their Catholic heritage.
of other faiths--Jews, Protestants, and even some Muslims, Hindus and
Buddhists--arrived in the successive waves of massive immigration to the
United States between the 1840s and 1920s. But Catholics from various
countries were the most numerous--and the most noticed. In 1850 Catholics
made up only five percent of the total U.S. population. By 1906, they made
up seventeen percent of the total population (14 million out of 82 million
people)--and constituted the single largest religious denomination in the
students hear the enormity of the demographic and religious shift caused by
immigration, they will start to understand why so many American citizens
became uneasy about the so-called "Catholic hordes." Change is always
difficult, and this was a huge change. Why did things change? Why did so
many Catholics come to the United States at this time? Why did the country
take them? To answer these questions, you might paint for your students a
scene or two of the broad Western-hemisphere trend towards economic and
social "modernization." The newly centralized states of Europe and the New
World were promoting capital investment in urban industries that disturbed
ancient customs of farming, craft labor, and land inheritance. A new
managerial "middle class" of clerks and bureaucrats was prospering in the
cities, but thousands of peasants were displaced from their land and labor
by new farming techniques. The Catholic citizens of Italy, Poland, parts of
Germany, and the Eastern European kingdoms of what are now Slovakia and the
Czech Repuclic began to cast their eyes towards America. The country had a
growing world reputation for democratic ideals and work opportunity. For
these peoples, as well as for French Canadian Catholics to the north of the
United States and Mexican Catholics to the south, the chance for a new life
free of poverty and oppression was too good to pass up. Millions of sons,
fathers, and later whole families left behind their former lives and
possessions and boarded crowded ships sailing for New York.
its part, docked ship after ship at Ellis Island for both idealistic and
practical reasons. It was the American ideal to welcome the foreigner; all
the country's founding groups and many of its leading citizens had been,
after all, immigrants. The motto on the Statue of Liberty, "Give Me Your
Tired, Your Poor," exemplified the strong tie between immigration and
freedom in the national imagination. But more practically speaking,
America's new industries and booming frontier towns demanded large
quantities of cheap labor. So immigration was a benefit to both sides--at
least in theory.
Guiding Student Discussion
doesn't always translate into the feelings and experiences of real people in
real situations. Immigration was supposed to be beneficial to the immigrant
and to the country, but it also unleashed many fears, insecurities, and
troubles on both sides. It might be a good idea to brainstorm with your
students about the positive and negative FEELINGS that both natives and
immigrants could have experienced at the time. Let the students imagine and
talk about what it might have felt like for the immigrants, who didn't know
"the ropes" or in many cases the language. Let them also imagine what it
might have felt like for those already living in America, who saw their
cities change so quickly: suddenly there was a Catholic church in every
neighborhood. Immigration is, of course, still very much a part of the
American reality and public debate. Some of your students may be Catholic
themselves and may be surprised to hear of the former low status of the
"assimilated" religion they know. Some of your students may know of
immigration from firsthand experience, being immigrants or children of
immigrants themselves. Others may know about immigration from news reports
or experiences with neighbors. Don't hesitate to make the connections
between the realities and perceptions of Catholicism and immigration then
and now. Their experience of the present realities can help them understand
the past, and vice versa.
refocus the discussion to make the point that in the nineteenth century, the
immigrants' RELIGION, Catholicism, became a focal point for these
feelings about immigration on both sides. The immigrants held onto
Catholicism for spiritual comfort and group identity. The older Americans
blamed Catholicism for the immigrants' "foreign ways." Both sides used
Catholicism as a way of resisting the other. How did the immigrants express
their feelings through their faith? How did Protestant Americans use
Catholicism as a "substitute" for immigration issues?
several years in America, many Catholic immigrants became sorely
disillusioned. "American Dreams" of rich farmland and easy money evaporated
in the run-down, neglected quarters of big cities and died during long hours
working lowpaying, backbreaking jobs. Yet sooner or later, many families
managed to improve their economic situations, through luck, ingenuity, hard
work, and--they strongly believed--help from God, the saints, and the
For it was
the Catholic Church, more than any other organization, that made a concerted
effort to welcome the new Catholic immigrants. Catholic citizens helped them
find jobs and homes; sisters (nuns) taught their children English in
Catholic schools; priests tried to protect their political interests and
shield them from a sometimes hostile Protestant environment; the local
church held religious festivals and social events. It is important to stress
that for the immigrants, the neighborhood Catholic church was not just a
church; it was the focal point of a whole community, a whole way of life.
Even if the relationship between the Church and Catholic immigrants was
often far from perfect, local parishes provided millions of heartbroken,
homesick immigrant men and women the familiar comforts of ritual and belief
that gave their world meaning.
should know what parts of Catholic ritual and belief set it apart from
Protestant Christianity, although it should also be emphasized that there is
much more continuity than difference between the two forms of Christianity.
Catholic tradition had held for centuries
institutional Church, with its highly organized hierarchy topped by the
pope in Rome, was the sole source of spiritual nurture, divine
authority, and final salvation;
sacraments--religious rituals like the Mass and confession--were the
main means of human contact with the divine; and
saints--who, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, were holy people held up as
examples by the Church--could be called upon in prayer to "intercede"
for Catholics with the Father and the Son.
reformers of the Protestant Reformation objected vehemently to these
emphases, insisting instead on
hierarchy in church structure,
Bible rather than sacraments as the source of revelation from God, and
himself as the only necessary intercessor with God the Father.
centuries Catholics and Protestants had waged real and polemical wars
against each other about these and other issues that calcified their
mutually antagonistic positions. In the context of nineteenth-century
America, where Bible-believing, evangelical Protestants constituted the
clear majority, the Catholic minority faith, with its elaborate rituals and
statues of the saints, seemed to most people very strange, even "wrong." Of
course, for Catholics these were natural and familiar ways to express their
faith in God. There was nothing strange about them at all. In fact, they
thought Protestants were strange and "wrong."
Protestants, the immigrants' religion was cause for great consternation.
Protestants prided themselves on living in a country founded as a Protestant
"light unto the world," as the Puritans put it. They felt threatened that
America might soon become a "Catholic" country; they worried that the
Catholic religion, with its hierarchies and traditions, had made the
immigrants unsuitable for democratic and individualistic America. They even
mused whether the Catholics were coming in droves in order to colonize
America for the pope! The churches could try to protect the immigrants, but
they could do little to counter the prejudice Catholic immigrants faced in
"mainstream" America every day. Neighbors called Catholics names, employers
refused to promote them, landlords rented them their worst apartments,
newspapers blamed them for rising crime rates, and banks refused them loans.
A popular national organization, the American Protective Association, was
founded specifically to promote anti-Catholicism and other prejudices.
because Catholics believed a different Christianity than Protestants? Partly
no, and partly yes. On the one hand, anti-Catholicism wasn't all
about Catholicism; it was partly about class, too. Many people of the upper
classes didn't particularly pay attention to Catholics' religion, but
assumed that because the immigrants were poor, foreign, and different, that
meant they were also dirty, dangerous, and lazy. Many people of the lower
classes assumed the immigrants represented competition for jobs, homes, and
social prestige that rightly belonged to them. On the other hand,
anti-Catholic prejudice was about religion. For Catholics did
become good American citizens--winning political races, organizing labor
unions, opening businesses, and founding schools and hospitals. But no
matter how hard Catholics strived to prove they were good, upstanding,
patriotic American citizens, some Protestants would never accept them,
simply because they were Catholic. This instance of naked prejudice may be a
hard thing for students concerned about "equality" and "tolerance" to hear.
Others may feel more sympathetic towards the Protestants' religious
conviction. Again, pointing out the continuities with present-day instances
of prejudice would only help to illuminate both.
social stigma of being Catholic, students might naturally wonder why most
Catholic people who came to this country remained Catholic. There are
several reasons, all of which speak to the very teen-accessible issue of
"identity"--how people have it, create it, or change it. One reason
Catholics stayed Catholic is that they truly believed that Catholicism was
the "right" religion, and converting to Protestantism was simply not an
option. Another is that Catholicism was an "alternative," "different"
religion in America at the time, and some Catholics wore that "differentness"
as a badge of pride or a marker of identity in an unfamiliar environment.
Finally, some stayed out of habit and culture. They were Catholics in the
Old World, therefore they were Catholics in the New, and that was that.
public's resistance to immigration culminated in a series of immigration
restriction laws passed in the early 1920s that placed quotas on the numbers
of people allowed from each foreign country. Quotas for Catholic countries
were set so low that Catholic immigration virtually halted by 1924.
ways, the Catholic immigrants of the nineteenth century faced as much
conflict within their churches as without. The debate raged between
Church leaders about the best strategy to deal with the
immigrants--"Americanize" them as quickly as possible, or encourage them to
retain their own national language and faith customs as long as they could.
The proponents of the first view, called "Americanists," tended to be
theological liberals and social progressives who were quite optimistic, in
the spirit of the "Gilded Age," about the compatibility between America and
the Catholic religion. The advocates of the second view, considered
"conservatives," tended to be traditionalists who regarded America's
infatuation with the new technology, "materialism," and social reform as a
dangerous context for preserving the troubled immigrants' faith. Often the
immigrants themselves had their own opinions in the matter, but were caught
between warring bishops. Over the long term, both the Americanists
and the conservatives "won": the pope pronounced in favor of the
conservatives in 1891, but as new generations were born, of course,
Catholics became quite "Americanized" as aspects of the Old World devotional
culture and theology were gradually left behind and shades of a new, more
individualistic and democratic Catholicism appeared.
American Catholic history have universally considered immigration by far the
most dynamic force in the nineteenth-century American Church, but they
continue to debate the issue of "Americanization." The magisterial histories
of American Catholicism written successively by John Gilmary Shea, Peter
Guilday, and John Tracy Ellis from the 1890s to the 1950s considered
"Americanization" a good thing and countered popular perceptions of
Catholics' unfitness for America with numerous examples of American Catholic
achievement. More recent histories by Jay Dolan and Patrick Carey (1990s)
reconsider the merits of "Americanization" in light of contemporary
discussions of "Catholic difference" and "multiculturalism." Their work
suggests that traditional immigrant Catholicism contributed to changing the
definition of "America" from a nation of Anglo-Saxon Protestants to
a culture of diversified regions and peoples. They also carefully
distinguish between religious styles, political leanings, and social status
associated with different ethnic groups within Catholicism; for example, the
Irish Catholic political machines in New York were much different than
German Catholic sodalities in the Midwest, though both kinds of groups grew
out of the immigrant Catholic experience.
historians have pointed out that concepts like "Americanization" and
"assimilation" assume there was a coherent "American" population, when in
fact immigration itself was overshadowed and interimplicated with the great
social debates over slavery and, after the Civil War, the so-called "Negro
problem"--issues whose very existence proves that a homogeneous "American"
population could not be taken for granted (Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome).
Newly-ordained African-American priests
New Orleans, Louisiana, 1934
Library of Congress
studies have taken up the history of African Americans who were themselves
Catholics; this minority within a minority persevered with little attention
from their Church throughout the period of European immigration (Stephen
Ochs, Cyprian Davis). Some historians have found the "differences" between
Catholics and Protestants in this period overplayed; both groups, for
example, were implicated in a broad cultural concern to establish a
"domestic" religion alongside church attendance that emphasized religious
commodities in the home and family prayer (Colleen Mcdannell, Ann Taves).
Still other historians have painted in great detail the complex social
worlds of the immigrant neighborhoods, raising the question whether ordinary
immigrant Catholics really noticed or cared about the "mainstream"
Protestant world much at all (Robert Orsi).
Byrne is Assistant Professor of Religion at Duke University,
specializing in American religious history (20th-century U.S. religion,
Catholicism, race, gender, and theory). She is the author of O God of
Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (2003), a study of
a Catholic girls' college basketball team as "lived religion," and is
completing her next book, The Other Catholic Church, on
independent Catholic traditions in the United States.
Address comments or questions to Professor Byrne through TeacherServe "Comments