New York Catholics: a history of making a difference

Patrick McNamara (Courtesy of Orbis Books)

The recent death of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Catholic, placed a spotlight on the role of Catholics in the public square. Much of the reporting described how Cuomo's faith helped shaped the kind of policies he pursued. At the funeral, Cuomo's son, Andrew, the current governor of New York, described his father this way: "At his core, at his best, he was a philosopher, and he was a poet, and he was an advocate, and he was a crusader."

Catholics with all kinds of backgrounds have been shaping New York for over 200 years. Another New Yorker and Catholic, Patrick McNamara, a historian and author, took a deeper look at Catholics who have made significant contributions to building New York City and its archdiocese. McNamara's new book, New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works!, takes a close look at approximately 80 individuals, both historic and contemporary, who were people of deep faith, and impacted the lives of those they served.

NCR: When you look at the arc of these lives lived and those still living, what stands out to you as the most compelling discovery of writing this book?

McNamara: I guess three things. First, it would have to be the difference that Catholic women and men have consistently made, and make, in the life of both this local church and the larger city.

Second was the sheer variety of the ways in which people today are responding to the Spirit's call: in a jail, a soup kitchen, a retreat house, a classroom, through the new social media, even in a monastery. (We don't think of New York City as a place conducive to monastic life, but there's no less than four in Brooklyn and the Bronx.)

Third was the realization that similar books could be written about the difference Catholics make throughout other big cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, to name a few.

Each profile reflects a person deeply committed to relationships, especially to the poor. Does this surprise you in any way?

As Pope Francis said, "To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete." A huge part of being a Catholic Christian is service to neighbors, particularly the most disenfranchised and alienated. In my book, you see this in the 18th century as clearly as you do in the 21st.

To put it in a word, it's simply what we do, whether it's Pierre Toussaint tending cholera victims in 1830s Manhattan, Mother Mary Walsh helping a dying prostitute in a 1890s West Side bordello, or Fr. John Corridan fighting for the rights of working people in the 1950s.

And that work goes on today as Sr. Margaret McCabe ministers to prisoners, as Br. Mike Grogan works with South Bronx gang members, or when Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald helps formerly incarcerated women get on their feet. These are just a few examples.

From both the historic and contemporary biographies, the church in New York has been and continues to be an immigrant church, correct? Do you think that will ever change?

The charism of New York Catholicism might well be summed up as "welcoming the newcomer," whether that newcomer is from Ireland or Germany, Italy or Poland, Nigeria or Vietnam, Mexico or El Salvador. In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, parishes celebrate the liturgy in anywhere from two to five languages each. I don't think that will ever change, as long as people continue to immigrate to New York in search of a better life.

Today, the New York church, like so many others, is facing significant financial challenges and parish closings, a lack of vocations, young people unengaged with the practice of the faith, and so on. As a historian, is this simply cyclical, or do you sense a different kind of Catholic church in New York emerging?

New York Catholicism is at a crossroads right now, for reasons that include parish closings, older Catholic ethnic groups moving out of the city, new immigration, and the rapid gentrification now occurring in all five boroughs. Back in the 1800s, a young immigrant church, predominantly white, immigrant, working-class, was being formed from scratch. It too faced a lack of vocations and numerous financial challenges. But soon, a specifically New York Catholic culture was formed: working-class, immigrant, and based on the local parish. As Charles Morris points out in his 1998 book American Catholic, Catholicism became as much a culture as a religion, but since the 1960s, this culture has unraveled. This was true in New York as well as elsewhere. It's a major reason you see so many young Catholics unengaged in the practice of the faith today. A new and different kind of Catholic culture is in the process of being formed in a rapidly changing New York. What it will look like remains to be seen. 

In your profile of Peter Turner (1787-1862), who was instrumental in starting the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese, you note that the laity are the ones who often pave the way for the church. As you look at the New York church today, is it your view that it will be the laity yet again who pave the way for growth in this local church?

I think so, and not just because of the decline in traditional religious vocations. Immigrant communities throughout Queens and the Bronx, specifically Hispanic/Latino Catholics and Asian Catholics, have rejuvenated and revitalized a number of parishes that were on the verge of closing. In Flushing, Queens, Korean Catholics recently started a new parish altogether. In almost all of these cases, it was lay leaders who pushed for the changes and presented their needs to traditional church leadership. This trend is not confined to immigrant Catholics, as lay leaders predominate in parish work, young adult ministries [and] in Catholic education at all levels.

You profiled the great Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), a former slave, entrepreneur and philanthropist, whose cause for canonization was opened up by New York Cardinal John O'Connor. What can Pierre Toussaint teach us today about race relations?

As the Catholic historian Cyprian Davis writes, the African-American Catholic experience is a testament to the true meaning of the word "Catholic"; i.e., "universal." As the hymn says, "All are welcome in this place." The experience of Pierre Toussaint reminds us that this is a "big-tent church" where all are welcome. We still need to be reminded of this.

It was interesting to learn that a Cuban nationalist, author, editor, philosopher and teacher, Fr. Felix Varela (1788-1853), came to New York and had a significant influence in the development of the archdiocese. How do you think Valero would react to Pope Francis and President Barack Obama's recent decision to begin to normalize relations with Cuba?

Although he was exiled from Cuba by Spanish authorities in 1823, Fr. Varela was a lifelong Cuban patriot who edited New York's first Spanish newspaper, El Habanero. I think he would have been delighted to see Cuban-American relations moving toward greater dialogue. And he would have been particularly pleased to see a pope taking such a prominent role therein.

In your profile of Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Society of St. Paul the Apostle (commonly known as the Paulists), whose cause for canonization is ongoing, you point out that Hecker believed that we need to meet people where they are and journey with them. This sounds very much like Pope Francis. Each profiled individual seems to do just that: meet people where they are and journey with them. Is there really any other way to effective, concrete evangelization like this?

I think it's really the only way, at least the only effective way. If you were to make a compendium of Hecker quotes (which I think Paulist Press has done), they'd sound an awful lot like what Pope Francis has been saying. If he were alive today, Hecker would be one of the pope's biggest cheerleaders, a Pope Francis priest to the core. But Hecker wasn't the only one. All the people profiled identified a need and set out to meet it in a spirit of collaboration and fraternity.

A number of contemporary voices noted that Fr. Thomas Merton was a big influence on their lives. Your book showed on more than one occasion the continuity or connectedness between the historical figures and the contemporary individuals in the continuing building up of the New York church. As a Catholic and as an historian, that must have been fascinating to discover.

It certainly was. [Jesuit Fr.] James Martin has spoken many times about the influence of Thomas Merton on his life, and [Archbishop] Fulton Sheen has influenced those involved in the new social media, such as Deacon Greg Kandra. Dorothy Day has been a powerful example and inspiration for those working with the poor today. As a historian, it was fun discovering these points of connection between past and present. The point of commonality between the past and present figures is a generous response to God's call.

In several profiles, the individual's faith really created sharp turns in the road of their lives -- for example, Mother Agnes Donovan, who helped start and now leads the Sisters for Life religious order, or Deacon Greg Kandra, whose decision to become a deacon happened in fairly short order. What did you discover about how one's faith can become a real game change in people's lives and in the lives of the people they serve?

In a sense, what happens is something of a conversion experience, for the cradle Catholic as well as the adult convert. Both Mother Agnes and Deacon Greg fall in the former category, but their experience was no less profound than that of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. Edward McGlynn was a parish priest in 1860s Manhattan when he made a decision to devote his life to the urban poor. Mary Walsh was an unemployed immigrant when she turned her life over to God and the poor. In all these cases, their faith life made a real difference in the lives of those they aimed to reach through their writings and deeds.

Who are your favorite profiled individuals from the book?

I've long been a fan of Isaac Hecker, whose message of outreach and reconciliation is more relevant today than ever. But I really liked getting to know people I'd never encountered before, like Mother Theodore Williams, an African-American woman religious who fought racism and poverty in 1920s Harlem. I also liked getting to know Mother Cabrini better. I always envisioned her as haloed and inaccessible. But here was a sharp woman with a passion for life who wasn't afraid to challenge church leadership if she thought they were wrong. I was really impressed with the late Msgr. Gerald Ryan, who worked in Bronx parishes for 68 uninterrupted years, lovingly touching the lives of so many.

Some of the profiled individuals are now on the road to sainthood and are truly exceptional people. When you reflect on all the profiles, can list the top five or 10 characteristics that emerged from your book?

I see them as the following:

  1. An incarnational spirituality that sees God present throughout the grind of a busy New York day.
  2. An understanding of the word "Catholic" as meaning "universal."
  3. A spirit of collaboration that includes all the baptized as well as the ordained.
  4. A willingness to see new approaches, or as [the Second Vatican Council] says, to "read the signs of the times."
  5. Being unafraid to challenge the status quo and/or institutional leadership.
  6. A desire to meet people where they're at.
  7. A commitment to the common good.
  8. An ecumenical spirit.
  9. A respect for and commitment to diversity.
  10. Last but not least, a special preference for meeting the needs of society's least advantaged.

What are your hopes for the reader to take away from reading your book?

For one thing, I hope they get a sense of the difference Catholics make in the life of New York City. I also hope that the reader will realize, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, that "Catholicism is a deep matter. You cannot take it up in a teacup." Finally, I hope that they'll realize the implications faith can have for larger changes in the world.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR.]

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