Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North.
How does one celebrate and honor the achievements of communities based to a significant degree on one of America's most persistent moral failures? Though never stated explicitly, this is the question that haunts John T. McGreevy's extraordinary new work on northern urban Catholics and race. That McGreevy is finally unable to resolve this tension speaks volumes about both the social tragedy that racism continues to inflict on our society and the candidness and thoroughness of the author.
John T. McGreevy's Parish Boundaries is clearly the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched analysis of urban, northern Catholics and race published in America. McGreevy ranged through nearly three dozen separate archives and collections, as well as the voluminous secondary literature on American Catholics in the twentieth century to piece together a story that places race at the center of the profound social and cultural transformation that Catholics underwent in the middle of the century.
McGreevy focuses in his work on the northern, urban, Catholic experience of race through much of the twentieth century, though the book dwells most heavily on the period between 1920 and 1980. He opens his work with a discussion of urban Catholic parishes in the north in the century's second decade. He describes the mix of territorial (mostly Irish) parishes and "ethnic" or "national" parishes that constituted most urban dioceses. In this structure, the church divided each diocese into parishes that had distinct geographic boundaries. Each of these geographically defined parishes was a territorial parish, that is, it was defined by the territory included within its boundaries. Irish immigrants dominated many of these parishes initially, and Irish clergy ruled over them for longer than Irish Americans constituted a majority of parishioners. Because many other (predominantly European) immigrant groups chafed under the Irish domination of their territorial parishes, were explicitly excluded from full and equal participation in parish life, or simply preferred a Catholic cultural experience more familiar to them, the church also located "ethnic" parishes within or across the boundaries of territorial parishes.
Most northern urban dioceses therefore had twin organizational structures, one based upon territory (and dominated by Irish culture) and the other rooted in ethnic identity with no fixed territorial boundaries (but in reality drawing mostly Catholics in geographic proximity to the church). In Pittsburgh, for instance, a third of the diocese's parishes were "ethnic" and two thirds were "territorial" until recent parish closings eliminated or merged many ethnic parishes. Sometimes a parish was both "territorial" and "ethnic," but most often it was not. McGreevy argues that these parishes maintained both geographic and cultural boundaries that they imbued with sacred meaning.
McGreevy then explores the community dynamic within the territorial parish and discerns that Catholics had a social experience distinct from that of Protestants and Jews that depended to a greater degree on connection to "place." The parish became not simply the church and school, but rather the neighborhood that the church and school came to define. Much of parish life so infused the neighborhood that the territory became sacred to parishioners. Their connection to their religion was inseparable from their connection to their neighborhood. The two became one, and parish priests reiterated this confluence by insisting that parishioners commit to the neighborhood as well as the church, that they buy homes in the neighborhood rather than rent, that they invest much of their incomes in parish facilities, and that they form extensive social organizations through the neighborhood parish rather than through the neighborhood alone.
It is important to note here that the twin parish structure allowed Catholics to live peaceably in mixed neighborhoods that contained even multiple, overlapping Catholic parish boundaries. If they defined their neighborhood in sacred terms, they seemed satisfied to allow others to live within their geographic borders, and even to allow others to define the territory within their parish boundaries differently - or at least content enough to refrain from violence and intimidation to assert their own definition. Because so much of McGreevy's analysis depends upon strong boundaries, this may prove to be a troubling phenomenon.
As further evidence of the parish communities' strength, McGreevy argues that even non-Catholics recognized the boundaries. Many Protestants and Jews who lived within the parish boundaries understood themselves to live in Catholic parishes. They reported that they lived in St. Mary's parish, for example, rather than identifying their neighborhood by a more secular name.
McGreevy suggests that this background is necessary for understanding Catholics' special experience with race. Because Catholics put more stock in place, in the sacred parish with defined social, cultural and geographic boundaries, they took any threat to the integrity of their neighborhoods more seriously than Protestants and Jews, who were more content to simply move on. When Protestants and Jews moved in droves to the suburbs, Catholics persisted disproportionately in the urban neighborhoods of their parents, according to McGreevy, and used a variety of means to defend their sacred ground, their "parish boundaries," from threats.
One might already wonder how the overlapping parish structure allowed Catholics to maintain strict boundaries to begin with, but it is in the Catholics' definition of "threat" that the fundamental tension that permeates McGreevy's work really emerges. McGreevy's analysis would work wonderfully if he were addressing Catholic resistance to the location of a toxic waste dump in communities, or even the construction of a major highway through the heart of a parish. But it seems more problematic when the white Catholic community rallied together to ostracize, threaten, and even physically attack black Catholics who sought simply to share Communion with their white brothers and sisters, or to live on their street. Further, why did the presence of African American neighbors constitute a threat to the sacred boundaries of an Irish parish when that of Italians, Germans, and Russians did not? If Catholics defined their boundaries both socially and geographically, then any non-Catholic presence within the borders ought to have been a threat worth fighting, not simply the presence of African Americans. Yet Catholics reserved a special, often violent, response to the presence of African Americans.
To his credit, McGreevy never shies from recounting the nature and form of the Catholic response to that threat. Readers regularly encounter stories of Catholics drawing on their community ties to rally support to bully new African American neighbors out of their homes or exclude them from worshipping in the parish church - to push them outside of the parish boundary. And one might reasonably read McGreevy's work as simply a comprehensive and thorough exposition of this white Catholic rejection of residential integration. However, McGreevy does not want the reader to come away from the book so critical of urban Catholic parishes as such a reading necessarily entails.
In the end, McGreevy seeks to redeem these parishes by suggesting to readers, Catholic readers particularly, that they might celebrate these communities as models for contemporary Catholics who need to "strengthen family, faith, and community." (p. 264) If the racism that McGreevy recounts was truly incidental to the life of the parish, then these models would indeed be worth emulating. But if, as one might reasonably conclude from McGreevy's evidence, the racism these communities exhibited was central to the their coherence and strength, then why would we seek to reconstruct those parish boundaries at all? That Parish Boundaries comes out at a time of both concern for the loss of community and increasing pressures to re-segregate in our cities, makes this an even more central question, and renders McGreevy's efforts to answer it an even greater service. Even if McGreevy cannot ultimately resolve this central tension that has permeated American Catholic parish life throughout the twentieth century, he at least provides the surest and most comprehensive guide to our past struggle with that crucial issue.
Timothy Kelly Saint Vincent College
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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