Present at the Creation: Working-Class Catholics in the United States



Although Protestants have always been a substantial majority in the United States, the nation’s industrial working class has been heavily Catholic. By European standards, moreover, and especially in comparison with Italy and France, America’s Catholic workers have as a group been remarkably disciplined in their religious practice. ‘It is not our people who miss Mass on Sunday, refuse the sacraments and vote the Communist ticket’, as Auxiliary Bishop Steven Leven reminded Curial conservatives at the Second Vatican Council. ‘We have not lost the working class. They are the foundation and support of the Church.1 Like most ‘American exceptionalists’, Bishop Leven saw only in part: American Catholics by the 1960s were more disaffected than he evidently knew, while the situation in Europe — even in Italy — was more complex than his rhetoric allowed. Still, Bishop Leven for all his provincialism was clearly onto something, and not only with regard to religion.


Ethnic Identity Catholic School Economic Morality Urban Minority Parochial School 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Quoted in Gerald P. Fogarty, The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965 (Stuttgart, 1982), 394.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The literature here is immense, but as examples of ethnic variations in religious practice see, for the Irish: David M. Emmons, The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875–1925 (Urbana and Chicago, 1989), 95–103;Google Scholar
  3. Timothy J. Meagher, ‘Irish, American, Catholic: Irish-American Identity in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1880 to 1920’, in Timothy J. Meagher, ed., From Paddy to Studs: Irish-American Communities in the Turn of the Century Era (Westport, CT, 1986), 75–92 and (in the same volume)Google Scholar
  4. Ellen Skerrett, ‘The Development of Catholic Identity Among Irish-Americans in Chicago, 1880–1920’, 117–38;Google Scholar
  5. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York, 1985), 331–4, 526–34;Google Scholar
  6. Thomas E. Wangler, ‘Catholic Religious Life in Boston in the Era of Cardinal O’Connell’, in Robert E. Sullivan and James M. O’Toole, eds, Catholic Boston: Studies in Religion and Community, 1870–1970 (Boston, 1985), 239–72; on the Germans: David A. Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo, New York, 1825–1860 (Urbana and Chicago, 1989), which also deals with the Irish; Kathleen Neils Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836–1860: Accommodation and Community in a Frontier City (Cambridge, MA, 1976), 158–64; Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815–1865 (Baltimore, 1975); on the Italians: Gary Ross Mormino, Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882–1982 (Urbana, 1986); Robert Anthony Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950; John W. Briggs, An Italian Passage: Immigrants to Three American Cities, 1890–1930 (New Haven, 1978), 193–6; Silvano M. Tomasi, Piety and Power: The Role of the Italian Parishes in the New York Metropolitan Area, 1880–1930 (New York, 1975); on Poles: Dominic A. Pacyga, Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880–1920 (Columbus, OH, 1991); Robert A. Slayton, Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy (Chicago, 1986); Ewa Morawska, For Bread with Butter: The Life-world of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890–1930 (Cambridge, 1985), 107–9, which also deals with other Slavic groups; Joseph John Parot, Polish Catholics in Chicago, 1850–1920 (De Kalb, IL, 1981); Leslie Woodcock Tender, ‘Who is the Church? Conflict in a Polish Immigrant Parish in Late Nineteenth-Century Detroit’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 25:2 (April 1983), 267–8; on Slovaks: June Granatir Alexander, The Immigrant Church and Community: Pittsburgh’s Slovak Catholics and Lutherans, 1880–1915 (Pittsburgh, 1987); M. Mark Stolarik, Growing Up on the South Side: Three Generations of Slovaks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1880–1976 (Lewisburg, PA, 1985), 44, 52–3, 74–82. Most of these studies deal with gender-based differences in religious practice, though sometimes only in passing. For a more sustained discussion, see Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit (Detroit, 1990), 61, 64–6, 169, 172–5, 402–7. On secular-church rivalries over group leadership, see John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, IN, 1985), 109–10, 156–66; for similar rivalries among the Germans, see Eric L. Hirsch, Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth-Century Chicago Labor Movement (Berkeley, CA, 1990), 157–8; Richard Oestreicher, Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit, 1875–1900 (Urbana, 1986), 51.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Paula M. Kane, Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900–1920 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994), 100–1; Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 61–3, 172–6, 403–5; Hugh MacLeod, ‘Catholicism and the New York Irish, 1880–1910’, in Jim Obelkevich, Lyndal Roper and Raphael Samuel, eds, Disciplines of Faith: Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy, (London, 1987), 344–6; Wangler, ‘Catholic Religious Life’, 263–4; Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, NY, 1985), 219–20; Jay P. Dolan, Catholic Revivalism (Notre Dame, IN, 1978) 131–4.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    The literature on lay initiative is now very large. The seminal publications are Timothy L. Smith, ‘Religion and Ethnicity in America’, American Historical Review 83 (Dec. 1978), 1155–85, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ‘Lay Initiative in the Religious Life of American Immigrants, 1880–1950’, in Tamara K. Hareven, ed., Anonymous Americans: Explorations in Nineteenth-Century Social History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971), 214–49. For a summary of work prior to the mid-1980s, see Dolan, American Catholic Experience, chapter 6; see also Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 71–2, 220; Joseph J. Casino, ‘From Sanctuary to Involvement: A History of the Catholic Parish in the Northeast’, in Jay P. Dolan, ed., The American Catholic Parish: A History from 1850 to the Present, v. 1: Northeast, Southeast, South Central (New York and Mahwah, NJ, 1987), 12; Bodnar, The Transplanted, 150; on Germans, see Joseph M. White, ‘Cincinnati’s German Catholic Life: A Heritage of Lay Participation’, U.S. Catholic Historian, 12:3 (Summer 1994), 6–8; Gerber, American Pluralism, 193; Dolan, Immigrant Church, 72–3; on Poles, see Tentler, ‘Who is the Church?’, 260–4; on Slovaks, see Stolarik, Growing Up on the South Side, 45–6; Alexander, Immigrant Church and Community, 36–7; Mark Stolarik, ‘Lay Initiative in American-Slovak Parishes, 1880–1930’, Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 83:3–4 (Sept.–Dec. 1972), 151–8; on Eastern Europeans more generally, see Morawska, For Bread with Butter, 106–7; on the dominant role of clergy among the Famine Irish and the Italians, see Ellen Skerrett, ‘Sacred Space: Parish and Neighborhood in Chicago’, in Ellen Skerrett, Edward R. Kantowicz and Steven Avella, eds, Catholicism, Chicago Style (Chicago, 1993), 143–5, 148–9; on Italians, see Mormino, Immigrants on the Hill, 153–4.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Skerrett, ‘Sacred Space,’ 152–5; Gerber, American Pluralism, 190; John J. Bukowczyk, And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans (Bloomington, IN, 1987), 40–1; Morawska, For Bread with Butter, 109–11; Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street, 54–5, 59–60, 64–7; Smith, ‘Religion and Ethnicity’, 1168–74.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    R. Laurence Moore, ‘The End of Religious Establishment and the Beginning of Religious Politics: Church and State in the United States’, in Thomas Kselman, ed., Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American History (Notre Dame, IN, 1991), 256–7.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    White, ‘Cincinnati’s German Catholic Life’, 11; Pacyga, Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago, 140–3; Robert Lewis Mikkelsen, ‘Immigrants in Politics: Poles, Germans, and the Social Democratic Party of Milwaukee’, in Dirk Hoerder, ed., Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies: The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport, CN, 1985), 288–9; Morawska, For Bread with Butter, 230–1.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    White, ‘Cincinnati’s German Catholic Life,’ 8–9, 16–17; Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 71–5, 219–21; Alexander, Immigrant Church and Community, 56–8; Dolan, American Catholic Community, 193–4; Dolan, Immigrant Church, 52. On the ante-bellum period, see Patrick Carey, People, Priests and Prelates: Ecclesiastical Democracy and the Tensions of Trusteeism (Notre Dame, IN, 1987).Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 220–1; on the Polish National Catholic Church, see William Galush, ‘The Polish National Church: A Survey of the Origins, Development and Mission’, Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 83:3–4 (Sept.–Dec. 1972), 131–49.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    White, ‘Cincinnati’s German Catholic Life’, 2–4; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 126; David A. Gerber, ‘Modernity in the Service of Tradition: Catholic Lay Trustees at Buffalo’s St. Louis Church and the Transformation of European Communal Traditions, 1829–1855’, Journal of Social History 15:4 (Summer 1982), 655–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    On this point see John H. Whyte, Catholics in Western Democracies: A Study in Political Behaviour (Dublin, 1981), 15–16 andGoogle Scholar
  17. passim. For an example of a political application of this logic, see Joshua B. Freeman, ‘Catholics, Communists, and Republicans: Irish Workers and the Organization of the Transport Workers Union’, in Michael H. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz, eds, Working-Class America: Essays on Labor, Community, and American Society (Urbana, 1983), 275.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Olivier Zunz, The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880–1920 (Chicago, 1982), chapters 3, 13 and passim.Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    James M. O’Toole, Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O’Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859–1944 (Notre Dame, IN, 1992), especially 102–20; Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 425–6; Edward R. Kantowicz, Corporation Sole: Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism (Notre Dame, IN, 1983), especially 49–83.Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 149–50, 367, 375; Sullivan, ‘Beneficial Relations’, 205–6. Priests typically came from higher-status backgrounds than the mass of Catholics. But ordination became increasingly possible for men from modest backgrounds as various dioceses were increasingly able to underwrite high school training for prospective seminarians. See Joseph Fichter, Religion as an Occupation: A Study in the Sociology of Professions (Notre Dame, IN, 1961), 63–7 for data on the socio-economic origins of American seminarians in the 1920s.Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    Kane, Separatism and Subculture, 95–9; Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 200–11, 426–31; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 532–5; for parallel developments in American Protestantism, see Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York, 1977), 189–98.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 452–5; James W. Sanders, The Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833–1965 (New York, 1977), 13, 75–6. Boston, however, differed in this regard: see James W. Sanders, ‘Catholics and the School Question in Boston: The Cardinal O’Connor Years’, in Sullivan and O’Toole, eds, Catholic Boston, 140–1.Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    Joel Perlmann, Ethnic Differences: Schooling and Social Structure Among the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Blacks in an American City, 1880–1935 (Cambridge, 1988), 68; Sanders, ‘The School Question in Boston’, 121, 123–8, 158–9; Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority, 21–3, 36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 32.
    Catholic hospitals were often founded in response to perceived Protestant hostility, but were markedly more ecumenical in their policies than orphanages. See Mary J. Oates, The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America (Bloomington, IN, 1995), 46–50 andGoogle Scholar
  25. Christopher J. Kauffman, ‘Catholic Health Care: American Pluralism and Religious Meanings’, unpublished paper, delivered at the Center for the Study of American Religion, Princeton University, June 18, 1994. See also Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 107–9; Susan S. Walton, ‘To Preserve the Faith: Catholic Charities in Boston, 1870–1930’, in Sullivan and O’Toole, eds, Catholic Boston, 67–119.Google Scholar
  26. 33.
    Morawska, For Bread with Butter, 268–70; William Issel, ‘Americanization, Acculturation and Social Control: School Reform Ideology in Industrial Pennsylvania, 1880–1910’, Journal of Social History, 12:4 (Summer 1979), 569–90; on the ideological content of American school textbooks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in America, 1850–1920 (Chicago, 1978), especially ch. 5; Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority, 21–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 34.
    Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 92–4, 241, 248–9, 450, 454–8; Thomas W. Spalding, The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789–1989 (Baltimore, 1989), 329–30; Sanders, ‘The School Question in Boston’, 128, 130; Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority, 141–60.Google Scholar
  28. 35.
    Patricia Byrne, ‘In the Parish but Not of It: Sisters’, in Jay P. Dolan et al., Transforming Parish Ministry: The Changing Roles of Catholic Clergy, Laity, and Women Religious (New York, 1989), 124;Google Scholar
  29. Patricia Byrne, ‘Sisters of St. Joseph: The Americanization of a French Tradition’, US Catholic Historian, 5 (1986), 270. Byrne also notes that ‘indigenous American sisterhoods… did not, as a rule, form a separate servant class within their communities’ (ibid., 268).Google Scholar
  30. 36.
    On convent culture see Byrne, In the Parish’, 128–32; for a good sampling of recent works on American women religious, see Margaret Susan Thompson, ‘Cultural Conundrum: Sisters, Ethnicity and Adaptation of American Catholicism’, Mid-America, 74 (October, 1992), 205–30;Google Scholar
  31. Mary J. Oates, ‘Organized Voluntarism: The Catholic Sisters in Massachusetts, 1870–1940’, in Janet Wilson James, ed., Women in American Religion (Philadelphia, 1980), 141–69;Google Scholar
  32. Mary Ewens, OP, The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1978).Google Scholar
  33. 37.
    Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907–81 (Ann Arbor, 1993), ch. 1, especially 29–31;Google Scholar
  34. Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal (New York, 1985), 102–20; Issel, ‘Americanization, Acculturation and Social Control’, 571–4, 581–6; Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805–1973 (New York, 1974), 182–6; Marvin Lazerson, Origins of the Urban School: Public Education in Massachusetts, 1870–1915 (Cambridge, MA, 1971), 242–5; Raymond E. Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago, 1964) argues for the continued vulnerability of school administrators to political pressure groups, but shows the dominant role played by business elites in shaping turn-of-the century urban schools.Google Scholar
  35. 38.
    Ken Fones-Wolf, Trade Union Gospel: Christianity and Labor in Industrial Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1989), 73; Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority, 30–2.Google Scholar
  36. 40.
    James S. Coleman, Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared (New York, 1982), esp. 122–78;Google Scholar
  37. Andrew M. Greeley, Catholic High Schools and Minority Students (New Brunswick, NJ, 1982);Google Scholar
  38. James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer, Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities (New York, 1987), esp. ch. 5.Google Scholar
  39. 41.
    Kerby A. Miller, ‘Class, Culture, and Immigrant Group Identity in the United States: The Case of Irish-American Ethnicity’, in Virginia Yans-McLcughlin, ed., Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics (New York, 1990), 114.Google Scholar
  40. 42.
    Brian P. Clarke, Piety and Nationalism: Lay Voluntary Associations and the Creation of an Irish-Catholic Community in Toronto, 1850–1893 (Montreal, 1993), 132–9;Google Scholar
  41. Edith Jeffrey, ‘Reform, Renewal, and Vindication: Irish Immigrants and the Catholic Total Abstinence Movement in Antebellum Philadelphia’, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, CXIII (July 1988), 407–31; Fones-Wolf, Trade Union Gospel, 73; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 533–5.Google Scholar
  42. 43.
    Kane, Separatism and Subculture, 81–2; Clarke, Piety and Nationalism, 146–7; Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 204–6; Dale Light, ‘The Reformation of Philadelphia Catholicism, 1830–1860’, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, CXII:3 (July 1988), 401–5;Google Scholar
  43. Jay P. Dolan, Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience, 1830–1900 (Notre Dame, IN, 1978), 147–63.Google Scholar
  44. 47.
    Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 263–7, 478–83; John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA, 1986), chapter 13.Google Scholar
  45. 48.
    Kane, Separatism and Subculture, 81; Colleen McDannell, ‘True Men as We Need Them: Catholicism and the Irish-American Male’, American Studies, 27:2 (Fall 1986), 19–35.Google Scholar
  46. 49.
    Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge, 1990), discusses ‘economic morality’ in the working class, but fails to consider the role that religion played in this regard. Oestreicher, Solidarity and Fragmentation, includes the religious dimension, but addresses the theme from a slightly different perspective than I have done. See also Fones-Wolf, Trade Union Gospel. Google Scholar
  47. 50.
    Steve Rosswurm, ‘The Catholic Church and the Left-Led Unions: Labor Priests, Labor Schools, and the ACTU’, in Steve Rosswurm, ed., The CIO’s Left-Led Unions (New Brunswick, NJ, 1992), 129.Google Scholar
  48. 51.
    On this general point, see Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Family and Nation (San Diego, New York and London, 1987), 4–15.Google Scholar
  49. 52.
    The standard sources are still John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New York, 1963) andGoogle Scholar
  50. Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (Gloucester, MA, 1963, originally published 1938).Google Scholar
  51. 53.
    Martin G. Towey, ‘Kerry Patch Revisited: Irish Americans in St. Louis in the Turn of the Century Era’, in Meagher, ed., From Paddy to Studs, 151; James M. O’Toole, ‘Prelates and Politicos: Catholics and Politics in Massachusetts, 1900–1970’, in Sullivan and O’Toole, eds, Catholic Boston, 16–17; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 328–31, 524–6; Douglas V. Shaw, ‘Political Leadership in the Industrial City: Irish Development and Nativist Response in Jersey City’, in Richard L. Ehrlich, ed., Immigrants in Industrial America, 1850–1920 (Charlottesville, VA, 1977), 85–95.Google Scholar
  52. 54.
    Jo Ann Manfra and Robert Kolesar, ‘Irishmen, Elites and Reformers: Behavioral Continuities in Nineteenth Century Anti-Catholicism’, Mid-America: An Historical Review, 76:1 (Winter 1994), 27–52; Mikkelson, ‘Immigrants in Politics’, 228–9.Google Scholar
  53. 55.
    On this point, see Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton, NJ, 1988).Google Scholar
  54. 56.
    David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London and New York, 1991), 137.Google Scholar
  55. 57.
    In the ante-bellum period, see ibid., 140;Google Scholar
  56. for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Tentler, Seasons of Grace, 494–7; Dolan, American Catholic Experience, 365–7. A revealing book on race and American Catholics is Stephen J. Ochs, Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871–1960 (Baton Rouge, LA, 1990).Google Scholar
  57. 59.
    Aristide R. Zolberg, ‘How Many Exceptionalisms?’, in Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds, Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (Princeton, 1986), 428.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations