When the Going Was Good: Building the American Church “Better Than They Knew”

A once faithless and often disobedient American Catholic community was transformed by U.S. bishops during the period 1800-1900 into one of the finest Churches any pope ever saw. It is an accomplishment few particular Churches can claim in so short a period, one admired by all modern popes. Not the least of these is John Paul II, who left the U.S. in 1987 with “an unforgettable memory of a country that God has richly blessed from the beginning until now.” He was thinking as much of the patrimony of John Carroll to the Church as that bequeathed by George Washington to the nation. One-hundred-ninety days after the inauguration of the first president, the country’s first Catholic bishop began a religious tradition which turned out to be as historically unique as the political tradition which had its origins with the father of this new republic.

Two hundred years ago, from his residence at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, Pope Pius VI issued a brief entitled Ex Hac Apostolicae, wherein he proclaimed: “By the plenitude of our authority we do declare, create, appoint and constitute John Carroll, Bishop and Pastor of the Church of Baltimore.” Thus the Catholic Church of the United States was born.

The announcement was historic, of course, even though Catholics of the day were hardly a promising lot for God or country. For one thing, there were only 25,000 of them scattered through the original 13 colonies, served by only 24 priests, some of whom were scandal-mongers. It was the uncertain future which prompted a handful of pastors at the time to ask Rome for a bishop, a move which, to say the least, did not meet with general clerical approval. The diocesan priests were not overly friendly with the more prominent Jesuits, who among themselves feared that ex-Jesuit Carroll, once a bishop, would restrict what they called “their paltry privileges.” Settled parishes did not exist, and the laity, mostly farmers, tradesmen, and laborers, had by then settled comfortably into a decentralized nation, one not yet sure of its own identity. Conforming to the behavior patterns and the mores decreed by the gentry seemed to be the right and proper thing to do.

Anti-Catholic bigotry also hampered the infant Church more than contemporary America realizes today. The denial of civil rights to Catholics or access to public office, as in New Jersey and New York, were commonplace. Catholics heard the message: to survive they must accommodate. Rome heard, too. Pius VI, whose moment in papal history made him a witness to both the American and French Revolutions, postponed naming the first U.S. bishop for at least a dozen years. He deferred to views, like those of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, which warned that intervention by a foreign potentate, even in an ecclesiastical matter, would spark a new wave of persecution. Mother England had effectively exported with the colonists her virulent hatred of popish plots and popish priests.

Furthermore, cousin John Carroll, prior to his episcopacy, also wanted no Roman domination of the Church the pope would establish here. A generation later John England, the leading bishop of the South, was a partisan of the parish trustee system, which was patterned after the practices of colonial Protestant congregations and empowered laity to purchase land, to build churches, to control a pastor’s budget, and at times to hire and fire clergy.

Baltimore may have been the Catholic center of the day, but New York was the nation’s capital. Neither city, however, gave promise of what the future U.S. Church would finally become. Within a year of his consecration Carroll was impelled to convoke the first Baltimore Synod (1791), where he and his 22 priests agreed on the uniformity needed to be established “in all parts of this great continent,” particularly as it related to the celebration of Mass, administration of the sacraments, and the financial support of the clergy. The “informal” Church of that period, which today is looked upon by revisionist scholars as an acceptable compromise with native American aspirations, was effectively outlawed.

From that moment Baltimore set the tone of the U.S. Church development, even as demography was moving the hub of Catholic activity northward to the port cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Whereas only two Catholic churches could be found in New York in 1825, by the 1840s 200,000 Catholics lived there in 24 parishes. By post-Civil War times the diocese would absorb 40,000 new Catholics yearly.

The dominant pastoral problems of this emerging Church were twofold: the poverty of the newcomers and their tenuous connection with the Church. When John Hughes ascended the bishop’s throne in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1840), three-quarters of the 53,000 Gothamites applying for public welfare were his parishioners. Although Catholics made up only 10 percent of the city’s population, they comprised 40 percent of the burials in Potter’s Field. Nonetheless, Hughes was unhappy with his transplanted countrymen on other counts, calling them “the scattered debris of the Irish nation” and the “most wretched population that can be found in the world.”

They were not the pious or law-abiding lot that later Americans came to take for granted. According to Emmet Larkin, historian of things Irish, Hughes’ transplanted countrymen were part of a “generation of non-practicing Catholics, if indeed they were Catholics at all.” They only compounded already existing pastoral difficulties.

Historian Peter Guilday, speaking of U.S. Church life prior to the immigrant rush, describes it as “sadly hampered by the presence of priests who knew not how to obey and/or laity who were interpreting their share in Catholic life by non-Catholic standards.”

The Church’s special problem in those days seemed to be priests—their small numbers and their inferior quality. Bishops then did not agonize over the nature of the priesthood or the role of priests within the Church. The twenty-third session of the Council of Trent had settled that Catholic question several centuries earlier. With the Tridentine reforms of priestly life in mind, John Carroll established a major seminary for himself almost immediately (1791) but had to wait a long time for native vocations to bear fruit. In the interim he was forced, like other bishops, to accept into his diocese wanderers from Europe, more than a few of whom lacked proper credentials, sometimes coming without references at all. Before he died in 1815, Carroll endured other strains of office, not the least of which was the lay trustees who insisted on their rights to hire and fire parish priests. On this point of a bishop’s authority over priests, the Baltimore bishop was adamant: “I would sooner see a whole Congregation leave the Communion of the Church than yield.”

In due course all pioneer bishops paid a price for wearing a miter. When the first Vincentians reached St. Louis (1817), in preparation for the arrival of their new Bishop, Louis Du Bourg, they found local Catholics totally apathetic to his coming. The first bishop of Nashville (1838) found himself the ruler of a diocese with no priests at all. San Francisco, described as “neither parish-centered nor clergy-centered,” received its first archbishop in John Alemany, who had to “steal” priest John Maginnis from New York in order to open his first English-speaking parish (1851). The legendary John Ireland, who hoped to colonize his St. Paul diocese with invited Irish emigres, found himself publicly put to shame when a group of Connemaras from Galway turned out to be “dirty, foulmouthed, lazy, prone to fighting at the drop of a hat.” Their response in 1880 to Ireland’s effort to make them useful citizens was, “The bishop brought us here, and he must care for us.” Given those growing pains it should surprise few that Charleston’s Bishop England talked glibly before he died (1842) about the three-and-a-half million Catholics who were lost to the faith.

If bishops in the nineteenth century were challenged at every turn in their effort to uplift the moral tone of their poverty-stricken flocks, only occasionally did they face within the Church dissent from the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith. John Hughes had a minor doctrinal problem with an emotionally disturbed English priest (coincidentally in the parish vacated by John Maginnis), which escalated into excommunication (1859) when the cleric in question opened his own church a half-dozen streets away from the site of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But Hughes’ decisive action and the priest’s family brought about an early reconciliation, and the priest, prior to his return home, publicly asked “the prayers, pardon, and indulgence of the archbishop for any scandal and offense he may have caused.”

Later on, the definition of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council brought some demurrers, even from a handful of American bishops, notably Peter Kenrick of St. Louis and John Purcell of Cincinnati. But by this time (1870) the disciplinary procedures of the Church were in place, and while deviations from moral norms were commonplace, the authentic faith of the Church remained in possession. The separatist tendencies of the so-called early Americanists bowed to Rome’s prodding and to the general consensus among bishops that in the last analysis unity in discipline, especially over priests and religious orders, preserved the unity in faith.

Tactical differences in the hierarchy about how best to survive the Protestant crusade against things Catholic did not affect that unity. Baltimore Archbishop Martin Spalding’s General Evidences of Catholicity (1847) was a forerunner of Cardinal Gibbons’ classic Faith of Our Fathers (1876), which served as a vade mecum for convert-makers well into the twentieth century. In 1884 the U.S. bishops had no difficulty in authorizing the famous Baltimore Catechism, although some theologians of the day found it objectionable.

Throughout the nineteenth century and until 1918 when the Church’s first universal code of canon law was published by the Holy See, the chief instrument of Catholic formation in the United States was “the Baltimore Council.” There were ten such councils between 1791 and 1869. At first, they were little more than provincial synods, at the end, veritable national councils of the U.S. hierarchy. In 1869 a young Bishop James Gibbons, then Vicar Apostolic of North Carolina, emerged as the primary author of the pastoral letter adopted that year, in which among other things he lamented the great number of souls that had been lost to the Church. More significant perhaps was his ringing sermon closing out that council in which he articulated “the divine mission and unerring authority of the Catholic Church” over matters of faith and morals. By the time of the next, the last and most famous Baltimore Council in 1884, James Cardinal Gibbons was the presiding officer, appointed so as Pope Leo XIII’s apostolic delegate. These Councils, especially the later ones, set Catholic priorities and established in every root and branch of the Church a system based on those priorities. That system was to prevail for three-score-and-ten years.

In many ways, the late nineteenth to early twentieth century period turned out to be a turbulent one in American Church history. Some chroniclers find this excitement in the many fights that went on among bishops and pastors, and between bishops and Rome, over episcopal appointments, and among various ethnic groups vying for their place in the Catholic sun. Questions like “Should we accept an apostolic delegate?” “Would the Catholic University of America be better placed in Washington than New York?” “Did Archbishop Corrigan mishandle Dr. McGlynn?” still intrigue historians, if only because so much archival material is available to make these controversies interesting reading years later. But the real history of the U.S. Church unfolded more or less silently along the highways and byways of the nation, in the parishes, in the convents, in the schools, where the sons and daughters of polyglot immigrants were civilized and Christianized to an extraordinary degree. In those modest Catholic centers, which left behind few written documents, the vision of the Baltimore Councils became flesh and blood, forming generations of unusually pious Catholics.

Those Baltimore decrees—whether they concerned Sunday observance or the administration of the sacraments, parochial schools and uniform catechetical texts, temperance or the Ten Commandments, secret societies or parish societies—were offered to the Church’s people as Christian duties, to be taught as such by priests and religious and reduced to common practice in the parochial communities of the country. Even decrees directed to clerical discipline, on the appointment and removal of pastors, or on the control of religious orders, were programmed to ensure that Catholics received in the lifelines of the Church what the bishops of the country intended them to receive.

The results were not long in coming: a surge in Sunday Mass attendance, an informed Catholic laity, religious vocations in abundance, commonplace piety resulting from parish missions, Marian devotions, and frequent confession, first-rate apologetics, extraordinary conversions to the Catholic faith, and a deep loyalty everywhere to the Church itself. A finely honed religious institution had created a community of believing and behaving adherents rarely found in a modern secular state.

Such was the Church into which I was born shortly before America’s entrance into World War I. That Church in which I grew up was so well rooted in New York City that Catholic laity were the political bosses and the Cardinal Archbishop a man to be reckoned with. The Church for which I was ordained a priest in 1942 sent 40 men out into the city streets to make disciples of anyone who was lukewarm of faith, to bring faith to those who had none. But not until 1944 did I really come face to face with the full spectrum of success engineered by those nineteenth-century bishops. In that year the Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida, then the only Catholic jurisdiction in the state, save for a little corner around Pensacola, invited Los Angeles’ Father Thomas Coogan and me to organize a house-to-house census of every Catholic home in his diocese.

The evidence of how good the Church of Florida was in 1944 is clear enough. Ninety percent of the married couples in this study of 50,000 Catholics were validly married, i.e., by a priest. More than 75 percent attended Mass every Sunday. Even two-thirds of Catholics in mixed marriages, then considered a great source of leakage from the Church, were at Sunday Mass every week. What was more startling to the bishop was that Catholic religious practice, including frequent communion, improved with education and higher economic levels—80 percent regular Mass-goers at the college level, 85 percent for those with high economic status.

During the study we enjoyed the counsel of Oliver E. Baker, a leading demographer for the U.S. government and a non-Catholic, who found it difficult to believe the data which the IBM machines were spitting out. If we were not priests, he said he would have suspected that Father Coogan and I were doctoring our figures. Our Catholic data were contradicting all his well-founded sociological assumptions, one of which was that improved education and social status had a deleterious effect on religious observance and fertility. As competent as he was, and modest too, he thought demography was the most exact specialty in sociological science, leading him in 1944 to predict that the U.S. birthrate had finally stabilized and would remain so, perhaps to the end of the century. Two years later, of course, the war over, the “baby boom” unsettled demographers for good.

Catholics especially upset the scientists by proving them wrong. The best practicing Catholics were college graduates, whose fertility rates were higher than those of high school graduates. The effect of Catholic college education was little short of phenomenal on both religious observance and fertility. In those days, even nine out of 10 Florida teenagers, the normal bane of dutiful parents, were at Mass every Sunday.

Lest one think that Florida Catholics were atypical of the U.S. Church as a whole, it is well to point out that the data showed them to be 90 percent urban Americans and 85 percent native-born, characteristics of the American Catholic population generally. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that 80 percent were migrants from the Northeast, where half the entire Catholic population of the U.S. was living in 1944. One-half of those 50,000 had completed at least eight years of Catholic schooling, and two-thirds had attended a Catholic school at one time or another. Statistics by themselves were not the most impressive feature of the Florida census. The people were. They were God-oriented. Going to-Mass, making their Easter duty, and getting to Communion frequently were important features of their lives. So were their homegrown and parochial-based pieties. If they were in a bad marriage, they felt pain; going to confession was important; and their involvement in their local communities, to say nothing of the national war effort, was little short of heroic.

Later researchers would substantiate many of these Florida findings. Twenty years later Greeley and Rossi would suggest in their Education of Catholic Americans that nineteenth-century bishops actually programmed twentieth-century Catholics to be precisely what they became and succeeded in turning tepid immigrants into avid Catholics. Religious observance, faith in the Church and its teaching, and good knowledge of what it meant to be Catholic were the fruits both of a clearly taught Catholic understanding of Christianity and of good governance of the Church by bishops and local pastors. Faith, piety, discipline, obedience, moral behavior, good works, plus fairly large families were accepted by the American public as normal Catholic characteristics. We did not even know it at the time, but Catholics were moving up the social ladder, not just in the military and in labor, but in civic status, surpassing the achievement of Protestants by the middle 1960s.

While Catholic schools are usually given most credit for the healthy state of twentieth-century Catholicism—and surely without religious women staffing those schools the gains would have been far less—it was nonetheless the parish structure, of which schools became a normal part only later, and the Catholic discipline enforced by pastors, which were the prime movers of Catholic development.

Central to this burgeoning success of the Catholic Church in the United States was the effective pastor, a bishop in his cathedral, and a parish priest in the neighborhood church. An historian for 1900, John Talbot Smith, called the American parish “the highest achievement of the American priest” and added:

While the faith of the people edified their Protestant neighbors, the devotion of the priests to their people edified still more: It was seen that the [malarial plague had no overpowering terror for the priest, nor poverty of his people, nor any distressing condition. The virtues of the clergy and the people half a century ago was like sweet incense in the Republic.

However, good clergy do not completely explain Catholic success in the United States. Pastors were undoubtedly satisfied that in a hostile culture the Catholic population grew from 20 to 40 million between 1938 and 1962, the number of priests from 25,000 to 50,000, religious from 50,000 to more than 150,000, and school enrollment to 5,000,000 pupils, or one out of seven American youngsters.

Still, something even more important was at work than good pastors and good laymen. Modern historian Philip Gleason points to the certainty Catholics had when they thought of or spoke of the Church. To be a Catholic was to believe in the truth of the Church. The Church was not what people at different times and places said it was, but what the Church defined herself to be.

Believing bishops in union with Rome and priests committed to the truths of the faith made for a vibrant Church, one enhanced by the evangelizing and governing skills bequeathed by their nineteenth-century predecessors. Conversely, clergy who held an ambiguous view of the Church or those who were incapable of institutionalizing Catholic truth in the lives of interested believers, were normally unrewarded by ecclesial authority.

Nothing in the Second Vatican Council or in the subsequent implementing documents of the Holy See changed the preaching, sacramental, and governing roles of the Church’s pastors, from those of the most celebrated bishops to the functions of the lowliest parish priest. Better consultation procedures, the introduction of vicars or of deacons, parish councils, and lay associations were not intended to diminish the chief pastor’s rights and responsibility for catechesis, for Mass and the sacraments, for governing the Catholic community, or for correcting error and disciplining disrupters of Catholic order. It is still the priest who shepherds the flock according to the design instituted by Christ and in fulfillment of God’s revealed word.

In 1944 we were young priests working in a diocese that had only recently acquired its first American-born bishop in more than a quarter of a century. An old boys’ club led by Irish priests in Florida was being transformed into an American diocese, Roman-style, and, while the Irish priests initially resented Bishop Joseph Hurley, they ultimately obeyed him. When we told him that two of his pastors, one in Miami, another in Tampa, refused to take up the census, the bishop travelled from St. Augustine down Florida’s East Coast and then up the West Coast, picking up curates as he went. Arriving at the respective rebelling parishes, he presented each pastor with additional priestly staff, informing each of them, one an Irishman, another a Jesuit, that if the census was not completed in two weeks, they would be removed. It is a credit to the priests, as to Hurley, that the census was fully completed and was well done besides. Such was the Church of that day.

But then again, the 116 priests who went door to door in the Florida sun were part of a generation of priests who were impatient with imperfection in the Church. At the very moment the U.S. Church was moving (in 1944) toward the apex of its accomplishment, priests who were normally uncritical of their leadership were criticizing the Church for its losses. “Our Catholic Leakage,” “Leakage from the Church,” “Reason for Leakage from the Barque of Peter,” “The Fallen-Aways,” “Does City Living Undermine the Faith?” and “The Invalid Mixed Marriage” were feature articles regularly during the 1940s in the Ecclesiastical Review, America, and Catholic Action. Pittsburgh’s Father Thomas Coakley and Notre Dame’s Father John A. O’Brien became nationally known by reason of their pursuit of leakage. It was a throwback to an earlier period, when German Catholics regularly berated the so-called Irish hierarchy for the “huge losses” to the faith among non-English-speaking immigrants.

A religious priest, Gerald Shaughnessy, S.M., became bishop of Seattle within eight years of writing Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith? (1925), which explored Catholic leakage in great detail. Yet the opening dedication of this classic study was as follows:

Dedicated to the American hierarchy, the American priests and the American people who under the guidance of the Holy See built the Church in the United States better than they knew.


  • Msgr. George A. Kelly

    A native of New York City, George A. Kelly (1916-2004) was ordained for that Archdiocese in 1942. After receiving a Ph.D. from Catholic University, he worked in parish life, administration, and academia in New York. He was one of the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and author of many books, including The Battle for the American Church (1979). In the 1980s, Msgr. Kelly was at St. John's University in New York City.

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