Pilgrims to the Northland: The Archdiocese of St. Paul, 1840-1962.
The genre of (arch)diocesan history is of hoary provenance, and often consists of chronicles evocative of edification and yawns. Marvin O'Connell, a prolific historian of American Catholicism now retired from Notre Dame, here provides a welcome exception. This massive narrative escapes the status of mere chronicle through its spirited style, its perceptive appraisal of its cast of (frequently episcopal) characters, and its sense of the rootedness of ecclesiastical in social history.
The story of what is now the Archdiocese of St. Paul starts with the career of Louis Hennepin, the seventeenth century French Recollet missionary, but begins in earnest with the appointment of the first Roman Catholic priest to the new state in 1840 and continues to the eve of Vatican II. The early years are those of missionary endeavor with native peoples and immigrants in vast stretches of wilderness that rendered any sort of religious planting arduous. Bishops, beginning with Joseph Cretin in 1851, had to deal not only with severely limited resources but also with exasperating clerical scalawags, misfit vagi prone to troubles with alcohol and women whose stories make lively if sometimes painful reading.
Much of the narrative is generically similar to that of most Catholic dioceses in the era following the Civil War. This is especially true for those in the Great Lakes region where the problem of ethnic conflict created problems, particularly between Irish and Germans. Conflicts between religious orders and hierarchs, especially when gender and language were involved, also play a prominent part here. Archbishop John Ireland, of course, is an exceptional figure in American religious history, and his involvements in issues such as temperance, education, and colonization are given their due, as well as the Vatican machinations that surrounded them. O'Connell has written of Ireland more extensively elsewhere, but he inevitably becomes the centerpiece of the St. Paul story. Other distinctive figures whose influence extended beyond Minnesota include John A. Ryan, whose origins lay here; Dom Virgil Michel of the liturgical movement; and Louis A. Gales, the founder of the Catholic Digest.
Some particularly interesting interludes in this story concern the interactions of archbishops with wealthy lay donors. Robber baron James J. Hill, for example, was married to a Catholic, and his wife and son were active collaborators in such of Ireland's enterprises as the building of a new and splendid cathedral. One of Ireland's successors, John G. Murray, enjoyed a similarly cordial relationship with Nicholas and Genevieve Brady, and the three became involved in a complex relationship of ecclesiastical polities involving Francis Spellman, Fulton Sheen, and Pius XII, that borders on the gossipy. These stories are among the few places where laity specifically enter the story, and their stories are both intriguing and illuminating. Other discussions of lay piety feel rather generic and canned, since few individuals figure in them.
This volume could probably have been shortened somewhat without serious loss, and a narrative constrained by the conventions of institutional history must almost inevitably be centered on clergy and especially bishops. Nevertheless, O'Connell demonstrates that this kind of writing, when carried out with grace, with sensitivity to social context, and without undue obeisance, still has a place in the historiography of American religion.
Peter W. Williams
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|Author:||Williams, Peter W.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2010|
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