It is gratifying that Tentler narrates the history and legacies of the Spanish and the French, because for so long U.S. Catholic historians paid far less attention to them than to the third group of colonial arrivals: English and Scottish Catholics who arrived in Maryland in 1634 on the Ark and the Dove and established the colony as a destination for Catholic settlers. Eventually, Catholic communities in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, though small, nevertheless achieved political power through families such as the Carrolls, who produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the first U.S. bishop.
During the nineteenth century, the country’s borders expanded westward, eventually incorporating these diverse Catholic populations—along with indigenous converts and enslaved Black Catholics—within the territorial boundaries of the same nation. Tentler’s narrative of this century is perhaps the most compelling of the book. She describes an extraordinarily heterogeneous Catholic population who managed to practice their faith despite enormous challenges. Catholics on the frontier suffered from a chronic lack of clergy, and those clergy who were brave, rugged, or unlucky enough to work in the hinterlands needed to have prodigious linguistic skills (Frederic Baraga, first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan, spoke seven languages); be as hardy as possible (the frontier priest was characterized by his “coarsened hands, weathered complexion, and often rather shabby garments”); and accept the reality that frontier Catholics had only “limited exposure to communal devotions.”
During this period, the Church’s diversity became ever more pronounced. New waves of German and Irish Catholics arrived in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, giving “a hitherto marginal church...a startling new visibility.” By the 1850s, the Catholic Church had become the single largest denomination in the United States, but its size and rapid growth also attracted hostility: anti-Catholic propaganda circulated widely, and tended to fixate on lurid tales of sexually corrupt priests and ravished nuns—as with the 1836 “runaway best seller,” Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. Nativist political movements, such as the American Party and, later, the Know Nothings, also flourished.
Most of this migration was urban, and as a result the Church grew rapidly and impressively in urban centers. By and large, the hierarchy focused on establishing and strengthening Catholic institutions, especially through the construction of new, flamboyant, and imposing churches (St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built during this period), as well as the building of hospitals, orphanages, and schools. The labor of female religious, who worked as teachers, child-care workers, and nurses, would sustain all of these burgeoning new institutions well into the mid-twentieth century. (Throughout the book, Tentler consistently acknowledges the incredible contributions of Catholic women, underscoring their essential—and too often underappreciated—role in building and strengthening the American Church.)
This growth was interrupted by the Civil War, in which U.S. Catholics played an ambivalent, and often inglorious, role. Despite the fact that Pope Gregory XVI had condemned the slave trade in 1838, there were no prominent Catholics in the United States who were public advocates of emancipation. Instead, Tentler writes, “Catholic thinking on slavery...was rooted not only in tradition...but also in anxiety over liberal individualism.” Most southern Catholics—and several southern bishops—backed the Confederate cause. In the north, Catholics were underrepresented in the Union Army, and the famous Draft Riots of 1863 saw Irish rioters burning local draft offices and attacking Black New Yorkers in a disgraceful spate of lynchings, property destruction, and the torching of the Colored Orphan Asylum.
Given this history, it is not surprising that Black Catholics experienced racism, segregation, and exclusion both before and after the Civil War. Tentler describes how Black Catholics were barred from the vast majority of white religious orders. Black Catholic nuns were able to establish only two orders by mid-century, and Black priests were similarly rare. Ultimately, Tentler claims, Black Catholics “remained a small and generally segregated minority in the American church until at least the 1950s, when white Catholics began—slowly, hesitantly, and often incompletely—to embrace the liberationist implications of a now-distant Civil War.” Here, readers might find themselves wishing for a fuller investigation of the history of Black Catholicism in the United States, rather than the overview that Tentler provides. This may be a reflection of the fact that many Catholic archives have only recently begun to make public their materials on Black Catholic history in the United States. A new generation of scholars, such as Shannen Dee Williams, are currently investigating this fascinating and important area of research.
While Black Catholics saw only incremental change during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the rest of the U.S. Catholic population grew remarkably fast. A massive influx of new immigrants from Europe helped double the number of American Catholics between 1884 and 1914, and administrative and institutional expansion continued apace as forty-six new dioceses were created between 1880 and 1904. Tentler describes how the new immigrants of this period indelibly influenced the culture and devotional practices of the Church in the United States. Italian Catholics brought their saints and rituals with them, such as the annual festa; Poles were “prodigious church builders” who fused religion and nationalism (and whose parish disputes led to the only schismatic Church in U.S. history, the Polish National Catholic Church); and new Irish, German, and Eastern-European Catholic immigrants infused their communities with the practices, traditions, and languages of their homelands.
By the early twentieth century, the massive immigration of Catholic Europeans came to an end, due to restrictive immigration laws enacted by nativist legislators in the 1920s. (A small but significant group of Mexican Catholics did continue to immigrate to the U.S. Southwest and Midwest throughout the 1920s, but Spanish-speaking Catholics remained an underserved minority until after the first half of the twentieth century.) Still, the Catholic population continued to grow rapidly as the Catholic birth rate boomed. By mid-century, parish life was vibrant, with devotional societies and Catholic social groups thriving across the country. It was, famously, “an era of Catholic flourishing.”