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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:

Roman Catholics and Immigration in Nineteenth-Century America
Julie Byrne
Dept. of Religion, Duke University
©National Humanities Center
Links to online resources

1905 Pamphlet
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.

Many members 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 country.

When your 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.

America, for 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

But theory 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.

Then, 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?

After 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 Church.

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.

Students 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

  1. that the 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;
  2. that the sacraments—religious rituals like the Mass and confession—were the main means of human contact with the divine; and
  3. that the 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.
The reformers of the Protestant Reformation objected vehemently to these emphases, insisting instead on
  1. less hierarchy in church structure,
  2. the Bible rather than sacraments as the source of revelation from God, and
  3. Jesus himself as the only necessary intercessor with God the Father.
For four 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."

To 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.

All this 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.

Given the 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.

The American 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.

Historians Debate

In some 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.

Scholars of 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.

Other 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).
African-American priests
Newly-ordained African-American priests
New Orleans, Louisiana, 1934
Library of Congress
Other 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).

Links to online resources

Julie 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 Dr. Byrne through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

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Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective | Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
| African American Christianity, Pt. I | African American Christianity, Pt. II |
Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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