Building A Church

Historian O'Connor says Boston Archdiocese's growth and influence were driven by Irish immigrants

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Boston today is known as one of the most Catholic of American cities, but it was not always such: Indeed, early Catholic immigrants would have been hard pressed to find a place less congenial to their faith than the Puritan outpost on Massachusetts Bay.

In his forthcoming book Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and its People , Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History) - widely regarded as the dean of Boston historians - examines how the Church of Rome not only took root but flourished in the uninviting soil of Yankee Protestant Boston. O'Connor traces the remarkable growth of the Boston Archdiocese over the course of two centuries, from missionary beginnings through times of struggle and success, to the current administration of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Placing his account of the archdiocese within the context of national and regional events, O'Connor discusses Puritan Boston's animosity toward all things Roman Catholic, the inevitable clashes between 19th century native Bostonians and waves of Irish Catholic immigrants, and the rise of Catholics from oppressed minority to influential players in shaping the city's 20th-century character. He also analyzes contemporary problems of ethnic diversity, declining church attendance, diminishing religious vocations and divisive social issues.

A product of the triple-deckers of heavily Irish-Catholic South Boston, O'Connor colorfully evokes an era when the Catholic Church was at the height of its civic influence in Boston - when pronouncements from the chancery on Lake Street swayed politicians and publishers, when parish boundaries defined city neighborhoods and a Holy Name Society rally could draw 35,000 to Fenway Park, and when radios throughout Greater Boston were tuned daily to the beloved Cardinal Richard Cushing's raspy recitations of the rosary.

Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History).

"If you don't have it now, very shortly you will have a generation that doesn't remember that," said O'Connor. "It's history. One of the things this book can do is at least preserve the memory of what it was like then. It doesn't mean you have to go back to it, but there was a time when this is what the Church was."

Change is a major theme of the book, said O'Connor. "I try not to be blasphemous about it," he said, "but it has been said that Boston never changes. The fact of the matter is, it has. The same is said of the Catholic Church, that it never changes. But it has."

The rise of the Catholic Church in Boston also closely paralleled that of the immigrant Irish who built it, said O'Connor, who describes his chronicle as, in large part, "a story of Irish Catholics and their ability to sustain themselves, to progress and to succeed."

Boston Catholics are unique among their American co-religionists in the particular religious animosity, barriers of custom and class, and economic adversity they had to overcome, O'Connor maintains.

Unlike Chicago or San Francisco or the ever-growing New York City, O'Connor said, Boston was "already built," with a long history and entrenched custom, by the time waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere arrived in the 19th century. They found strong anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice, two centuries after the city's founding by English Puritans of Cromwellian bent whose rigid opposition to "popery" led them to ban Catholics from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

On the economic front, 19th-century Boston had invested in the textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence, but had no central industry of its own to absorb thousands of unskilled immigrant laborers, O'Connor said, which contributed to Irish unemployment and a corresponding perception of the Irish as drunken idlers.

For the Irish immigrant, the Catholic Church offered community, charity, spiritual solace and, like politics, a route for advancement. "The Church leadership provided the Irish protection and a voice at a time few other outlets were available," O'Connor said.

As Irish political fortunes in Boston ascended, so, too, did the status and influence of the Church, to the extent that Cardinal William O'Connell could boast, in the early years of the 20th century, that in Boston the "Puritan had passed and the Celt remains."

O'Connor acknowledged as a "pet peeve" the popular view that success came readily to the Boston Irish because they "took easily" to politics. In the Church, as in politics, O'Connor said, "the story of the rise of the Irish in Boston is a story of patient and determined hard work."

Return to Sept. 4 menu

Return to Chronicle home page