Irish Predominate Among ‘New York Catholics’: A Review

“NEW YORK CATHOLICS: Faith, Attitude & The Works!”
Patrick McNamara
Orbis Books, October 2014
211 Pages

When I first saw the title, I was apprehensive -- I was expecting either a dry history or a dry listing of “inspirational” figures. My reservations were unfounded, “New York Catholics” is a WONDERFUL book! Probably more so if you are from or are in or like New York, but even if you live in Iowa, it will give you a sense of history and conflict and put a personal face on times and events that you may have studied in school. I was intrigued with the introduction and, by Page 6, I was truly excited.

In the Introduction, author Patrick McNamara poses the question “What does it mean to be a Catholic New Yorker?” He splits his book into two parts -- Historical Voices and Contemporary Voices, and the choice of some of the people in the first section startled me, because I did not think of them as “historical.”  

Later on I realized that the “Contemporary Voices” are drawn from those still alive, so “historical” includes Mychal Judge, Cardinal O’Connor and Dorothy Day. The book is not overtly about Irish Catholics, but the number of Irish-born and Irish descendants is pervasive, starting with Sir Thomas Dongan, appointed governor of New York by King Charles II’s brother James in 1682, up to and including contemporary figures like Mary Higgins Clark, Regis Philbin, and Jimmy Fallon. The influence of the Irish immigrants was a key part of the growth of the Church, before the famines and even more as the numbers of immigrants expanded.

The book is 208 pages, including notes and references. McNamara treats 77 people. He lists 76, but he counts Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward (the famous Catholic husband and wife publishers) as one. Do the math, and you realize that none of the entries can be more than a couple of pages, so that with his gentle style of writing, McNamara has made this an easy and a fun book to read.

McNamara begins “New York Catholics” with the first Catholic Mass in the United States, celebrated by a Jesuit in 1683. (Those who wish to argue with that date and event need to be certain they’re talking about the mainland United States and that the Mass is documented, not assumed.) By the way, that’s part of what makes this book so welcome -- it invites you to explore further and learn more about the history the author drops in your way in each section.

Obviously I can’t run through the content, because there is simply too much information. While it would be a great foundational book for a class, it is most assuredly NOT a textbook nor a Wikipedia entry. There is something to be learned in each section, whether dealing with a well-known person or not, something of importance, not simply a tasty bit of trivia to be thrown out at a cocktail party. Simultaneously stimulating and entertaining, it is a picture of the width and depth of the lived Catholic faith over the centuries, and the richness that the Catholic Church has brought to this country and in particular, to this city.

Despite progress, many prejudices remain in place

Each mini-biography starts with a quote, either from or about the person. There are many pictures, although not each subject has a photograph, which is a little disappointing, especially with some of the contemporary figures.

I was startled by how many of the contemporary subjects I knew, although one (Monsignor Gerald Ryan from the Bronx) died shortly before the book went to press, but remained as a contemporary voice. There are omissions, like Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, for instance, the 10th and current Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York but without writing an encyclopedia, some have to be left out.

Throughout, McNamara has managed to balance the “religious” (cardinal and bishops, priests and nuns and those formally declared “Blessed” or “Saint”) with lay Catholics, and he has included a good sample of the different voices in the Church – Irish, German, Latin American, Black, the poor, women, social activists, media personalities, educators and missionaries to and from New York. I found, to my mild surprise, the section on contemporary voices was less compelling for me than the earlier writing on historical figures. I’m not sure if the author felt constrained by interviewing and writing about people still alive, but the stories of those living seemed more formal and less vivid

It is an easy book to read, but I would encourage readers to not slip through it too quickly. It deserves reflection, because it raises questions and provides examples that, no matter in what part of the book they appear, remain important issues today. 

Issues of prejudice against Catholics, prevalent in the 1600s when Dongan was governor of New York, continued, notably with the conflicts faced by Draft Riots-era Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes. In fact, discrimination against people of color, first confronted by Pierre Toussaint, are still one of the concerns faced by Fr. Greg Chisholm today at St. Charles Borromeo Church, and Brother Tyrone Davis in the Office of Black ministry.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann Seton worked to share the faith and teach children, the same goal Rosanjela Batista wrestles with at Cristo Rey High School. How a Catholic responds to prejudice, to poverty, to the call to speak publicly about the faith in the world of politics, business, social change – these are challenges that have been with us for centuries, and this book provides a look at how one group in one place has answered that call over almost 400 years.

I wish the author had himself answered the question he posed at the beginning of his book (“What does it mean to be a Catholic New Yorker?”). While his answer might be inferred from whom he included, and what he wrote about each, I would like to have been able to stand my reflections against his.

In its totality, “New York Catholics” is a rich and inspiring book and will provide both light and interesting reading, and a deep source for quiet reflection. 

Fr. John R. Sheehan,  SJ is himself a New York Catholic, born in Manhattan and baptized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He worked in New York as a young actor and singer, and entered the New York Province of the Society of Jesus (now the Upper Northeast Province, after a merger with the New England Province). He worked 12 years in Nigeria, almost three years as chaplain on a military base in the South Pacific, and is the Chairman/CEO of the Xavier Society for the Blind in New York City. He is also chaplain for the Notre Dame Club of NY, Division 7 of the AOH (Manhattan) and National Chaplain for the Catholic War Veterans.   

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Tags: American Civil War, Catholic, Faith, NYC, New York


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