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MCNY charts rise of Catholic power

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

This notice from the New York elections of 1872 is featured in the major exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, entitled “Catholics in New York, 1808 – 1946.”
Top of the ticket’s 35 names – the great majority of them Irish — was Francis Kernan, who was running for governor. He lost, but a few years later he became the first Catholic to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.
It was a different city to which Kernan’s County Cavan-born father immigrated in 1800. Catholics were then a small minority, though people fleeing the fallout from both the French Revolution and the Haitian slave rebellion were expanding their ranks.
By 1806, about 10,000 New Yorkers out a population of 70,000 were Catholic. Two years later, Pope Pius VII established the diocese of New York, which is the reason the museum picked 1808 as the formal beginning date for its story.
The Irish presence, both Protestant and Catholic, was to grow in the first three decades of the 19th century.
The exhibition displays the front page of “The Exile” for Saturday Morning, March 8, 1817. It contains an installment of a serialized account of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, then living out his final years on Saint Helena.
But, as is often the case with such exhibits, it’s the incidental and mundane that catches the eye and puts the viewer back in the past. Boot and shoe manufacturer Willam Cox, took out a classified saying he had moved to No. 91 Maiden Lane, “a few doors above Pearl-street, New-York.”
It adds: “W.C. thinks from his experience and his exertions in his profession to be able to supply those who may feel disposed to favour him with their commands, on as advantageous terms as any in this city. “
There’s nothing to indicate that “The Exile” was a Catholic paper. In fact, the clergymen mentioned in another piece appear to be Anglican. But that nonetheless serves to remind us of a time when Irish wasn’t necessarily synonymous with Catholic.
This began to change in the 1820s and 1830s when greater numbers of Catholics found their way from Ireland to New York.
Then in the latter half of the 1840s events beyond American shores would again change New York City. The Famine in Ireland and the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, which helped start a huge German migration to the United States, would radically shift the religious balance in the city.
By the end of Civil War, half of the population of New York, the nation’s biggest and most important city, was Catholic
The exhibition shows how Catholics transformed every aspect of New York’s civil society, in part by building their own institutions. But if there is an underlying theme here, it is the growth of the political power of a once outsider group. It began with the Irish, who by using their sheer force of numbers and the skills learnt back home during Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation campaign, took over clubs like the Tammany Society that controlled city government. We’re told that every club leader or “Grand Sachem” at Tammany Hall from 1872 until 1948 was Irish Catholic.
Inevitably, this burgeoning Catholic influence touched off a huge bigoted reaction at local and national levels.
Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly caricatures that depicted the Irish as simian-like creatures are nowadays perhaps the best-known aspect of that opposition to Catholicism and some of his work is on display here.
But so is a revenge of sorts: a large painting of Irish-born Tammany boss Richard Croker at the height of his influence in 1898, which was done by a portraitist of international renown, August Benziger.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the eve of World War I that a Catholic was elected mayor. That first one was John Purroy Mitchel, and every mayor for the next 50 years was Catholic except one (Fiorella La Guardia’s father was Episcopalian, while his mother was Jewish).
By the 1930s, urban Catholics were a key component in Franklin Roosevelt’s new Democratic coalition and the largely Irish-run political machines delivered the votes. The most influential of the bosses behind FDR was the Bronx-born, Fordham-educated lawyer Ed Flynn. We see here that that quintessential backroom politician made it to the cover of Time magazine on Oct. 12, 1942 (price 15 cents).
However, not all Catholics in this era were mainstream Democrats. The exhibit emphasizes just how wide was the range of views, from the right-wing anti-Semitic populism of Fr. Charles Coughlin’s crusade to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement on the left.
It features, too, Mike Quill, the transport workers leader, who was also a New York city councilman. The Kerryman’s Irish ties were useful at election time when he was most under attack for his ties to the Communist Party. The exhibit displays his United Irish Counties endorsement for the 1944 campaign (when he was still secretly a party member). It lists dozens of supporters, including Irish Echo sports editor Wedger Meagher.
By World War II, the immigrant masses, or at least their children and grandchildren, were moving rapidly into the American mainstream; indeed the war itself speeded up the process. The museum chooses to end the story with another milestone — the GI Bill, which among other things helped tenement dwellers became home-owning suburbanites almost overnight. The modern American middle class was born.
So, by war’s end, one could argue that Catholics had been accepted fully, even if would be another few years before one of their number was elected president.

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