American Catholics & Immigrations: Past & Present

by Michael Sean Winters

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When my dad entered St. Mary’s parish school in Jewett City, Connecticut, he did not speak English, only Polish, and so he had to repeat first grade. The nuns oversaw my dad’s transition from Polish farmhouse to American mainstream. The middle of nine children, he was the first to go to college and by the time I came on the scene, he was as American as apple pie. A few weeks ago, he told me he was going to Mass at Sagrada Corazon church about fifteen minutes from our home, because he had requested a Mass there for the mother of a Spanish-speaking friend of the family.

When Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross was dedicated in 1875, it was in the heart of the Irish South End. When I first visited the cathedral in the early 1990s, the Irish had fled and the neighborhood was somewhere between sketchy and dangerous. This coming weekend, Mass will be said in English, Spanish, and Ethiopian (the Ge’ez Rite calls the cathedral home now), and on the third Sunday of every month, there is also a Mass in German. Week after next, the cathedral will be filled on the Feast of St. Patrick when Cardinal O’Malley blesses the shamrocks, but it was also filled on January 1 for Haitian Independence Day.

At our Institute’s conference, Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism, last June, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka introduced our keynoter, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. Mr. Trumka spoke about the time his father had fled to the sanctuary of a church when the armed thugs hired by the capitalists of his day to break up the union came after him. (Back then, capitalists used rifles as well as Republicans to break up unions.) A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with some union and clergy friends at the downtown offices of a major union. A parade of union officials came in to great one of the priests: He had recently helped a family in dire circumstances after the union had contacted him.

There are no Catholics in the United States who cannot unearth in their history a lesson about how the Church welcomed and protected their immigrant forebears. Irish, German, French, Polish, Croatian, Czech, Italian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, we all have our tales to tell. Even the native Americans, who came from Asia a long, long time ago, found themselves protected, even flourishing when Fr. Serra built the missions and it was only when the missions were secularized that the native Americans were annihilated. The circumstances of the immigrant tales are different, sometimes the rationales for migration are different, some immigrants came to the East coast and others to the West, some had skills and others did not, but all of them found in the Catholic Church of their day a place of welcome and a place they could call home.

Whoever said that history is bound to repeat itself misunderstood history. History is the one thing which demonstrably does not repeat itself. But, the problems and the possibilities – the joys and hopes, as Vatican II called them - of our human condition are found in every age and every people, and those possibilities and problems seem to stand out in especially stark relief in the lives of immigrants. They are more likely to be exploited in the workplace. They are more likely to fall into poverty. They are more likely to see sudden and stunning gains in family income as a new generation proves its worth. Just because history does not repeat itself does not mean we should not look to the past to learn what lessons it has to teach us.

Consequently, next week, on March 12, Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPRCS) is hosting a conference entitled “American Catholics and Immigration: Past and Present,” to look at those lessons and apply them to the circumstances we face today. “The idea for this conference arose out of a desire to make connections between academics and non-academics interested in the role of Catholics, and the Catholic Church, in US immigration,” Julia Young, CUA history professor and one of the conference organizers told me. “As a historian, I'm very interested in the way that the Catholic Church and the Catholic faithful often offered logistical, spiritual, and political support for immigrants during the early 20th century. But I also have a deep interest in contemporary immigration policy, and so I'm interested in how Catholics continue to interact with new generations of immigrants, both Catholic and non-Catholic, arriving in the United States. This conference, then, is an effort to get policymakers, advocates, and academics talking in a semi-structured setting, and to generate new ideas about the ways that history can inform contemporary debates.”

Maria Mazzenga, who is Education Archivist at CUA and a fellow at the Institute, is another one of the conference organizers. “I'm especially interested in labor and immigration issues, which are closely related to each other,” Mazzenga says. “Across American history most migrants have come to the United States in search of work in order to earn a living wage for themselves and their families.  This is as true today as it was more than 100 years ago and more, with only the countries of origin shifting over time.  And since the late nineteenth century most of those immigrants have been Catholic and the Church has always been involved not only in immigrant welfare, culture, and legislation, but in labor issues as well.  So I am particularly interested in exploring questions of labor, immigration, and the church with both historians and priests on the parish level at this conference.”

You see how blessed I am? In addition to my wonderful colleagues here at NCR, I get to collaborate with really smart, inquisitive people like Professors Young and Mazzenga! This conference is free and is open to the public and you can learn more and register by clicking here. This is a strange time in the fight for justice for immigrants. We were so close to seeing comprehensive immigration reform passed and now, sadly, we know that nothing is going to happen in the next two years. This is a time to deepen both our understanding of this complex issue and, just so, our commitment to the cause of justice for immigrants, which is another way of saying, it is a time to honor our own history and our own Catholic identity. I encourage anyone who can attend to join us next Thursday, March 12 at CUA.  


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