Encyclopedia of New York City


At the end of the Revolutionary era Catholics in New York City numbered no more than two hundred, but they became the city's largest religious denomination by the mid nineteenth century and remained so 150 years later. The city's Catholic community has been noteworthy for both the rapidity of its growth in the nineteenth century and its ethnic diversity in the twentieth. In many respects Catholicism in New York City remains what it has always been: the immigrant church.

1. Colonial and Early Federal Periods, 1640-1815

For most of the colonial period Roman Catholic worship in New York City was clandestine or nonexistent, because the Protestant Dutch and then the English enforced laws prohibiting the organization and maintenance of Roman Catholic churches. In 1643 the French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues visited New Amsterdam and found only two Catholic inhabitants, and under English rule they remained few in number. With the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 a period of greater toleration for Catholics began in England and the colonies, and in New York Catholics were able to practice their religion without fear of prosecution from 1674 to 1688. Under the guidance of Governor Thomas Dongan (1682-88), an Irish Catholic, the colonial assembly passed the "Charter of Liberties and Privileges" (1683), which granted religious freedom to all Christians. Dongan also admitted to the colony three English Jesuits who opened a school and on 30 October 1683 celebrated the first Mass in the city, near the site of the old Customs House. The Glorious Revolution in England in 1688-89 and Leisler's Rebellion in New York City in 1689-91 brought an end to religious toleration in the city; by 1696 there were only nine professed Catholics, and in 1700 a law barred Catholic priests from entering the colony under penalty of life imprisonment. As hostility toward Catholics revived, rhetoric and diatribes against "papists" became a regular feature of political and popular commentary. Each year on 5 November New Yorkers celebrated Guy Fawkes Day (or Pope's Day) with drinking, parading, and anti-Catholic speeches, culminating in the burning of the pope in effigy. Violently anti-Catholic and anti-black hysteria swept the city during the "Negro plot" of 1741, when rumors circulated that Catholic conspirators had encouraged a slave revolt. Among the victims executed for treason was John Ury, an Anglican clergyman who was mistaken for a Catholic priest.

From 1756 the German-born Jesuit Ferdinand Steinmeyer of Pennsylvania (also known as Father Farmer) visited the city occasionally to celebrate Mass for a tiny Catholic community. The repeal of the anti-priest law in 1784 and the arrival of the Irish Capuchin friar Charles Whelan led to the organization of the first permanent Catholic parish in the city. Whelan found a largely poor community of about two hundred Catholics of at least five nationalities: Irish, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. A parish was formed at the initiative of a group of Catholic laymen under the leadership of the French consul Hector St. John de Cr¸vecoeur, and on 10 June 1785 the Roman Catholic Church in the City of New York was incorporated. In little more than a year a simple frame church was erected at the corner of Barclay and Church streets on three lots purchased from Trinity Church, and the building was formally dedicated as St. Peter's Church on 4 November 1786. Distinguished early members of St. Peter's parish included Elizabeth Ann Seton from 1805 to 1808 and Pierre Toussaint from 1787 to 1853. In 1808 Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of New York, which contained all of New York State and northern New Jersey. The first bishop, Richard Luke Concanen, O.P., died in Italy in 1810, unable to reach his diocese because of the Napoleonic Wars. The initial development of the see was instead conducted by the Alsatian Jesuit Anthony Kohlmann in 1808-15. He supervised the construction of the second Catholic church, the original St. Patrick's Cathedral (1815) on Mulberry Street, and opened the New York Literary Institute, a short-lived Jesuit college that closed in 1813 so that the Jesuits could concentrate their limited manpower at Georgetown College.

2. Immigration and the Development of Hierarchy and Parish

The bishop in 1815-25 was John Connolly, O.P., another Irish Dominican and the first bishop to reach New York City. On his arrival in 1815 he found that he had only three churches and four priests in the whole diocese. Between 1815 and 1842 the number of Catholics increased from about fifteen thousand to 200,000, causing a severe shortage of priests and increasing the membership of several parishes in Manhattan to nearly ten thousand. Most of the new Catholics were poor Irish immigrants, but many were German, and a few were French. The massive influx revived anti-Catholic bigotry and ethnic rivalry within the Catholic community. Despite these problems the Catholic church in New York City became larger, stronger, and more diverse in the decades before the Civil War. The Sisters of Charity opened a Catholic orphanage in 1817. Father John Power, the pastor of St. Peter's Church in 1819-49, in 1825 launched the Truth Teller, the first Catholic newspaper in the city, and in the following year helped to establish the predominantly Irish parish of St. Mary on Grand Street, which was the third Catholic church in the city. The equally popular Cuban-born priest Felix Varela founded Christ Church (1827), which served a diverse parish and was divided into the parishes of St. James and Transfiguration in 1833. Chronic debt plagued many of the parishes. Priests and parishioners tried numerous schemes to refinance the mounting debt, among them soliciting public donations, renting out pews, and holding church fairs, and a few wealthy lay Catholics like Cornelius Heeney (a business partner of John Jacob Astor) were generous benefactors, but the threat of insolvency persisted for many parishes throughout the early nineteenth century.

During the 1840s John Hughes became the most influential Catholic prelate in the United States. Born in Ireland and a priest of the Diocese of Philadelphia before moving to New York City, he became the coadjutor bishop to Bishop John Dubois in 1838 and successfully eliminated "trusteeism" by shifting the control of parish property from local lay trustees to the pastors and the bishop. In 1840 he criticized the Public School Society (a government-subsidized private organization that operated the city's public schools) for its openly anti-Catholic curriculum and its mandatory use of the Protestant King James Bible; he also demanded that state and municipal authorities grant the same funds to Catholic schools as they did to other private and sectarian schools. As a result the state legislature in 1842 replaced the Public School Society with locally elected school boards that gradually removed the Bible from the curriculum, and Hughes built his own system of parochial schools within the diocese. Hughes alarmed many Protestants who believed that his attack on the school system violated the separation of church and state and was an effort to drive the Bible from the public schools. Hughes's success with the state legislature did lead to the eventual secularization of the public schools, a result that he neither intended nor desired.

Hughes became the fourth bishop of New York in 1842 and continued to attract national attention by his vigorous response to anti-Catholic bigotry. In 1844 a nativist mob killed thirteen Irish Catholics and destroyed three churches in Kensington, a suburb of Philadelphia. When similar attacks were threatened in New York City, Hughes posted armed guards around his churches and warned the nativist mayor James Harper that if any harm should come to his churches or his people, he would transform the city into "a second Moscow" (a reference to the tactics of Tsar Alexander I against Napoleon). His firm leadership maintained peace and prevented the sort of bloodshed that occurred elsewhere. To alleviate the chronic shortages of priests and sisters, Hughes invited ten religious communities to the diocese. The Society of Jesus arrived in 1845 and was entrusted with administering St. John's College, which was then newly established (it later became known as Fordham University). The largest of the new communities was the Sisters of Charity, which staffed many of the new parochial schools; in 1846 the sisters formed their own diocesan community, the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent, and during the cholera epidemic of 1849 they founded St. Vincent's Hospital. Hughes also encouraged the formation of the Paulist Fathers, an American religious community founded by the convert Isaac Hecker in 1858. The Paulist periodical the Catholic World was launched in 1865. The enormous growth of the diocese led the Holy See to restructure it as an archdiocese in 1850. The creation of new sees in Buffalo and Albany, New York (1847), and in Brooklyn and Newark, New Jersey (1853), reduced the area of the archdiocese to one tenth its former size. In 1850 Hughes became the first archbishop of New York.

During the massive immigration of 1840-65 the number of Catholics in the diocese reached almost 400,000, making them the single largest denomination in the city. Most Catholics in New York City were Irish. "National parishes," which were ethnic rather than territorial, were formed to meet the pastoral needs of German- and French-speaking Catholics. The same practice was followed later for Italian and Slavic immigrants. At the close of the Civil War in 1865 there were thirty-two parishes in Manhattan, of which twenty-three were territorial (and mainly Irish), eight were German, and one was French. A few parishes such as St. Alphonsus on Thompson Street were ethnically mixed, catering to both Irish and German Catholics. In all Hughes was responsible for the establishment of sixty-one new parishes in the Archdiocese of New York and for the construction of the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue (begun 1859, consecrated 1879). On his death in 1864 probably one of every two New Yorkers was a Catholic, and the parochial schools educated 16 percent of the 100,000 children in the city.

John McCloskey was the first native-born archbishop of New York (1864-85) and the first American cardinal (1875-85) during a period when Irish Catholics continued to increase their political power. Catholic charitable institutions continued to provide health and social services; one of the most important was the New York Foundling Hospital, opened in 1870 by Sister Irene Fitzgibbon of the Sisters of Charity. In 1872 Honest John Kelly replaced William M. "Boss" Tweed as the head of Tammany Hall and inaugurated a period of Catholic domination (his wife was a niece of McCloskey). William R. Grace, a successful businessman and sometime opponent of Tammany Hall, was elected the city's first Catholic mayor in 1880, and in the following year Father John Drumgoole opened the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin for the Protection of Homeless and Destitute Children, one of the largest orphanages in the country. Situated first at the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones streets, in 1883 it added a much larger facility at Mount Loretto on Staten Island. The first black Catholic church, St. Benedict the Moor, opened in 1883 in a former Protestant church on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village to serve the tiny black Catholic community and later moved to the new black neighborhood around West 53rd Street.

In 1885-1902 the archbishop was Michael A. Corrigan, a leading figure in the conservative wing of the American Catholic hierarchy and a conscientious administrator who added ninety-nine parishes to the archdiocese. Despite his administrative abilities Corrigan was widely regarded as an uninspiring leader, and he was the only archbishop of New York during a period extending from McCloskey's tenure into the 1990s who did not become a cardinal.

As the conservative Catholic laity gained control of the local Democratic Party, a group of diocesan priests known as the Accademia began to advocate radical reforms in both church and society, including the adoption of a vernacular liturgy, the abolition of religious orders, and the passage of social welfare legislation. The most widely known of these priests was Edward McGlynn, pastor of St. Stephen's Church on East 28th Street. His activity in municipal politics and notably in the mayoral campaign of Henry George (1886) led to his temporary excommunication (1887-92), during which he remained a popular public figure as the head of the Anti-Poverty Society, and a thorn in the side of Archbishop Corrigan.

3. Changing Structure and Composition of the Church

The consolidation of New York City in 1898 meant that ecclesiastically the city was now divided between the Archdiocese of New York (comprising Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and seven upstate counties) and the Diocese of Brooklyn (comprising Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island). Both dioceses grew rapidly in the early twentieth century. In the Diocese of Brooklyn the Catholic population increased from 500,000 in 1900 to 800,000 in 1920; in the Archdiocese of New York the Catholic population increased from 825,000 in 1900 to 1,325,000 in 1920, with much of the growth occurring in the Bronx, Westchester, and Staten Island. Many of the new Catholics were Italian immigrants who arrived in large numbers between 1880 and 1910. Corrigan responded to this pastoral challenge by recruiting priests from Italy, especially from the Pious Society of the Missionaries of St. Charles, better known as the Scalabrinians. Another community active in the Italian Apostolate was the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, formed by Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini, who later opened Columbus Hospital (1892; now Cabrini Medical Center). In 1902-18 the archbishop of New York was John M. Cardinal Farley, the last in a long line of Irish-born prelates to lead the archdiocese. During his last years a series of highly critical state and city investigations into Catholic charitable institutions caused a crisis in the church's social apostolate, but both the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn continued to grow at an impressive rate. By 1920 the Diocese of Brooklyn had 223 parishes and 117 parochial schools with 74,000 students, while the Archdiocese of New York had 391 parishes, 188 parochial schools, and 93,000 students. In the same year fifty-one of the 113 parishes in Manhattan were "national parishes," serving eighteen ethnic groups.

The archbishop in 1919-38 was Patrick Cardinal Hayes, a first-generation Irish-American from the Lower East Side. Under his leadership Irish domination of the local church continued even as the Irish population of the city declined. Largely in response to the scandals that occurred under Farley, Hayes in 1920 reorganized the several hundred charitable institutions and agencies of the archdiocese as the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, a super-organization that set new standards of professionalism for Catholic social work around the country. Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and others launched a movement on 1 May 1933 that combined orthodox theology with radical social activism, and from the same year published the Catholic Worker. Another influential group included "labor priests" such as Philip Carey of the Society of Jesus (the founder of the Xavier School of Industrial Relations in 1934) and Monsignor John P. Monaghan (an influential proponent of the Social Gospel among the diocesan clergy). The Catholic Interracial Council first met in 1934 under John LaFarge of the Society of Jesus to address the concerns of black Catholics, and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists was formed in 1937 under the inspiration of Monaghan with the goal of educating industrial workers in the principles of the papal social encyclicals.

In April 1939 Francis J. Spellman, auxiliary bishop of Boston and a close friend of the new pope, Pius XII, was named archbishop of New York. The appointment surprised many who had expected the appointment of a New Yorker. Spellman refinanced the debt of $28 million that the archdiocese had incurred during the Depression under Hayes, and placed the archdiocese on a sound financial basis. He then launched the largest expansion program in diocesan history and increased the number of parishes by forty-five. During his twenty-eight-year tenure Spellman spent almost $600 million to build and renovate Catholic educational and charitable facilities, and also centralized the financial and administrative operations of the archdiocese.

In the late 1940s the Catholic population of the Archdiocese of New York increased markedly after a decade of decline. The increase was due almost entirely to a huge influx of Latin American Catholics, first from Puerto Rico and then from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. Spellman's response was timely and effective. He established an archdiocesan office for Latin American Catholics, sent a large number of diocesan priests to learn Spanish, and welcomed the new parishioners into existing territorial parishes rather than establish new national parishes for them. In June 1953 more than 4500 Puerto Ricans attended the first annual Spanish Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in celebration of the fiesta of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Puerto Rico. Spellman also desegregated Catholic charitable and educational institutions and welcomed black candidates for the priesthood into St. Joseph's Seminary at Dunwoodie.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) Spellman was responsible for the presence of Father John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit whose progressive views on church and state were suspect to many conservative theologians. Spellman worked for the passage of the council's Declaration on Religious Liberty, and he won the gratitude of the Jewish community of New York City by vigorously supporting Nostra Aetate, the council's conciliatory decree on non-Christian religions. Under Spellman New York City remained an important center of American Catholicism. It was the place of publication of both major Catholic weeklies, America (owned by Jesuits) and Commonweal (lay-controlled), and of the older Paulist periodical the Catholic World. Under the editorship of the ultra-conservative Patrick J. Scanlan, the Brooklyn Tablet attracted a national following among right-wing Catholics.

Spellman became the best-known member of the American hierarchy since the death of James Cardinal Gibbons in 1921. His support of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s and of the Vietnam War in the 1960s drew both praise and criticism and placed him at the forefront of American Catholic conservatism. In 1957 the Diocese of Brooklyn was reduced in size when Nassau and Suffolk counties were made into a separate diocese with its seat in Rockville Centre. Brooklyn became the only totally urban diocese in the United States and the smallest in area, though it remained one of the largest in population, with more than one million Catholics. On 4 October 1965 Pope Paul VI visited New York City; he addressed the United Nations and celebrated an outdoor Mass at Yankee Stadium. As a result of the immigration reforms of 1965 the church had to provide for the pastoral needs of new Catholic immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. The civil rights movement of the 1960s also led Catholics to take a more active position on the rights of minorities, especially blacks. In 1968 the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York established Project Equality, to encourage parishes to support businesses that advanced affirmative action and equal opportunity in the workplace.

Terence Cardinal Cooke, whom Spellman chose as his successor, assumed his post in 1968 amid major changes in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council. During his administration the total Catholic population of the Archdiocese of New York remained at about 1.8 million, but only because Latin American and Asian immigrants replaced the dwindling number of older middle-class Catholics. The number of parishes remained stable at about 410, but the number of diocesan priests declined from 1108 to 777, and parochial schools lost 75 percent of their teaching sisters. During this period of retrenchment Cooke used his financial expertise to establish a cooperative system under which wealthy parishes were taxed to support poorer ones. Thus only thirty-one of the 305 parochial schools closed, despite a decline in enrollment from 167,000 to 88,000 students. In October 1979 Pope John Paul II visited the city. John Cardinal O'Connor succeeded Cooke in January 1984 and soon assumed a higher profile, clashing with local and state officials on the issue of abortion. By the early 1990s the Archdiocese of New York had 2.2 million members and 411 parishes (of which 122 in Manhattan, thirty-six in Staten Island, and seventy-one in the Bronx). The church remained predominantly an immigrant church: in the Archdiocese of New York almost half the parishioners were now Latin American, and national parishes were formed for new immigrant groups such as Arabs, Portuguese, Koreans, and Albanians. On Sundays Mass was offered in twenty-three languages. In 1991 a three-year campaign began to raise funds for financially ailing parishes. Education remained central to the work of the church: in 1993 its 243 elementary schools and fifty-five secondary schools were attended by 102,685 students, many of whom were poor, non-Catholic, and members of minority groups. In the Diocese of Brooklyn 217 parishes served more than 1.5 million Catholics, Mass was celebrated in seventeen languages, and there were 181 elementary and secondary schools attended by 74,133 children. Both dioceses sought to adapt their numerous charitable programs to meet the changing conditions of life in New York City, and in particular to address the problems of AIDS, drugs, and homelessness.

John Talbot Smith: The Catholic Church in New York (New York: Hall and Locke, 1905)

John Cardinal Farley: The Life of John, Cardinal McCloskey, First Prince of the Church in America, 1810-1885 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1918)

John K. Sharp: Priests and Parishes of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1820-1944 (Manhasset, N.Y.: John K. Sharp, 1944)

John K. Sharp: History of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1853-1953 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1954)

Robert D. Cross: The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958)

Robert I. Gannon: The Cardinal Spellman Story (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962)

Jay P. Dolan: The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975)

Richard Shaw: Dagger John: The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York (New York: Paulist Press, 1977)

Robert Emmett Curran: Michael Augustine Corrigan and the Shaping of Conservative Catholicism in America, 1878-1902 (New York: Arno, 1978)

Hispanics in New York: Religious, Cultural and Social Experiences: A Study of Hispanics in the Archdiocese of New York (New York: Office of Pastoral Research, Archdiocese of New York, 1982)

Florence D. Cohalan: A Popular History of the Archdiocese of New York (Yonkers, N.Y.: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1983)

Margaret Carthy: A Cathedral of Suitable Magnificence: St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1984)

Jay P. Dolan: The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985)

One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism: The Hopes and Experiences of the Black Community in the Archdiocese of New York (New York: Archdiocese of New York, 1988)

Thomas J. Shelley: Dunwoodie: The History of St. Joseph's Seminary (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1993)

-T. J. Shelley



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