Johann Palomino and Jennielle Muñoz, students at Our Lady’s School in San Diego, participate in a re-enactment of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to St. Juan Diego. (CNS photo / David Maung)

A few years ago, I taught an undergraduate course on migration at the Catholic University of America. During one lecture, I compared nineteenth-century Italian migration and contemporary Mexican migration to the United States. A hand shot up, and a student—one of several with an Italian surname—objected. “They’re not the same,” he protested. “My great-grandmother came here legally, and learned English—Mexicans don’t do that.”

As a historian who studies Mexican immigration to the United States, I’m used to hearing statements like this. Concerns about new immigrants’ legal status and failure to assimilate are widespread, and nativism has re-emerged in recent decades. Still, I wondered why this proud young Italian-American Catholic was so unwilling to compare his ancestors to the Mexican Catholic immigrants of today. Why did he not feel a sense of sympathy and solidarity for contemporary immigrants, who share so much with the great waves of Irish, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants of the late nineteenth century?

At the time, I didn’t quite grasp how many U.S. Catholics feel the widespread American discontent over immigration. After all, the Catholic hierarchy is vocally pro-immigrant, and the U.S. Catholic population is entirely composed of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Catholics have a proud tradition of social justice, and numerous Catholic organizations have done immensely valuable work to protect immigrants. Nevertheless, in our new Trumpian era of border walls and travel bans, it has become more apparent to me (and others, such as Paul Moses in a recent piece for Commonweal, “White Catholics & Nativism,” September 1, 2017) that white Catholics have a nativism problem of their own.

Given the history of Catholic immigration to the United States, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Catholic nativism toward other Catholic immigrants is a recurring sentiment that dates to at least the second half of the nineteenth century, when the influx of Catholics changed the religious landscape of the United States. From then until today, Irish, Italian, Polish, Mexican, and other Catholics have fought over power, identity, religious practice, and shared spaces.

This tense history is something that Catholics don’t always acknowledge. Instead, it’s far more common to hear Catholics describe their ancestors as victims of nativism—especially when those ancestors were Irish and Italian Catholics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Certainly, that’s the narrative I heard growing up—and I have found that most of my Catholic students are well aware of the “Know Nothing” movement and other instances of historical antipathy toward Irish and Italian Catholics.) And while nativism was certainly directed at Catholics by non-Catholics, that’s not the whole story.


Catholics were only a tiny minority in the United States until after the 1840s, when Irish immigrants began to arrive in the wake of the Famine. Relatively quickly, Irish Catholics began to compete with German Americans (who had arrived somewhat earlier) in the clergy and hierarchy, and soon the Irish dominated Catholic leadership on the East Coast (less so in the Midwest, where Germans still maintained majorities). In 1880s Boston, nearly 80 percent of priests were Irish or Irish-American; in New York, 70 percent. These clergymen ascended to the hierarchy, and by the turn of the century, it has been said, the U.S. Catholic Church was “one, holy, Apostolic, and Irish Church.”

Nevertheless, this Irish-led church soon began to face challenges from new immigrants arriving from Italy, Poland, and other Southern and Eastern European countries. Each ethnic group brought their own tradition, language, and clergy. Conflict between (and within) Catholic ethnic groups was quite common. It is no wonder that most new Catholic immigrants preferred to worship with their compatriots—and Catholic bishops responded by creating separate “national” parishes for each group.

Yet the national parish model may have also hindered inter-ethnic solidarity. In and around New York, Chicago, Boston, and other Catholic cities and neighborhoods, the Irish and Italians in particular shared a mutual antipathy, and often outright hostility (see Paul Moses’s An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.) The Irish were nonplussed by Italian anticlericalism, as well as by their unfamiliar religious practices (such as local street festivals), which they perceived as mere superstition. The Italians, in turn, were less than impressed by the seemingly cold and austere faith of the Irish, and even more rankled by their dominance of the hierarchy. Street fights between Italians and Irish were quite common: at one Irish parish (St. Francis in Flatbush, Brooklyn), Italian adults were excluded from church services and Italian children were harassed at the parochial grade school.

The Poles and the Irish did not get along much better. According to Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, Cardinal John McCloskey (the second archbishop of New York) famously told Polish Catholics who requested a church that they didn’t need a parish, but rather a pig shanty. At the turn of the twentieth century, some Polish Catholics were so aggrieved by such treatment—and by their lack of representation within the U.S. Catholic hierarchy—that they defected, founding the Polish National Catholic Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1897. Subsequently, Lithuanians founded a Lithuanian National Church (they later joined the PNCC), and the PNCC attracted other immigrants, such as Slovaks, as well. (This story is told in detail in a fascinating 2003 master’s thesis by Margaret Rencewicz, titled “The Polish National Catholic Church: the Founding of an American Schism.”)

Of course, religion was not the only issue dividing these ethnic groups. The widely held belief in eugenics, which cast Italians and Eastern Europeans as inferior races, certainly didn’t help matters. Nor did the fact that the new immigrants of the late nineteenth century competed with more established Irish-Americans for jobs (and were often willing to work for lower pay). Yet the divisions on the streets and in neighborhoods were reinforced by the “separate but equal” model of the national churches.

Eventually—and in part to cope with dissension between ethnic groups—Catholic bishops abolished the national parish, in an effort to promote “Americanization.” This meant that immigrants arriving after the 1920s would no longer be granted their own parish churches, but rather that churches would be allocated by population and neighborhood.

As white Catholics fled the cities, the rate of intermarriage increased, and the old ethnic tensions faded.

In practice, however, new immigrants still found themselves excluded or marginalized from the parishes of groups that arrived earlier. This was certainly true for Mexicans, who began migrating to the United States in increasing numbers during the 1910s and 1920s. A 1929 report by the National Catholic Welfare Conference on Mexican immigration noted that discrimination against Mexicans was rampant within white Catholic communities in the Southwest, describing churches with signs stating that Mexicans were prohibited, or limiting Mexicans to the last pew in the church. “There are many towns,” the report continued, “where [the Mexican] is not served an ice cream cone over the counter and where he is not admitted to moving picture houses which others attend. Many congregations do not welcome him and in places where there is no Spanish-speaking priest the Mexican stays away.”

After 1930, immigration decreased sharply, as the Great Depression and new restrictive laws put a temporary brake on arrivals. But internal migration had been ongoing since World War I, when thousands of African Americans began leaving the South for Northern cities in what became known as the Great Migration. Some were Catholics, especially those coming from Louisiana and the Gulf region. As they arrived and settled in the urban North, they faced rejection, discrimination, and hatred from whites—including many white Catholics, who resisted their integration into white parishes.

Many of these Catholics were the children of Irish and Polish immigrants, who had only recently begun to feel like Americans. Some scholars, such as Noel Ignatiev and Matthew Frye Jacobson, have speculated that their disdain for black Americans prompted these former rivals to overcome their ethnic differences and mutual hostilities and “become white.” Certainly, the racial tensions wrought by white resistance to black migration after World War II spurred white Catholics to move to the suburbs; this suburbanization intensified after school desegregation and would continue well into the 1970s. As a consequence, the old urban national parishes, once thriving centers of Catholic life, emptied out. As white Catholics fled the cities, the rate of intermarriage increased, and the old ethnic tensions faded. (Paul Moses tells this story in his book; so does the 2015 movie Brooklyn).

European immigration slowed significantly between 1940 and 1970. Nevertheless, new waves of Latino Catholic immigrants arrived during that period, and, like other groups before them, they found that the native-born Catholic population was not always welcoming. Without the possibility of the national parish, these new populations found themselves shoehorned into existing parishes. In New York and Philadelphia, arriving Puerto Ricans often felt that they were treated as second-class citizens within their new churches; and Catholic Cubans coming to South Florida after 1960 also clashed with the Irish Catholic population there. Mexican braceros likewise struggled for recognition and representation in churches across Texas and the rest of the Southwest during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Nevertheless, with the strong support of prominent pre-lates (including Archbishop Robert E. Lucey in San Antonio, Archbishop Coleman Carroll in Miami, and Cardinal Francis Spellman in New York) these groups eventually received resources and attention from the hierarchy, if not representation within it. Carroll, for example, was supportive of Cuban migrants, welcomed them to South Florida, and tried to portray them positively to the non-Cuban Catholic community. Eventually Cubans, at least, were able to achieve success, prominence, and a Cuban Catholic shrine—Our Lady of Charity—of their own.


Today, we are living through another great wave of immigration. After 1965, when laws were reformed, the immigrant population began to grow and has not stopped since. Currently the foreign-born population in the United States is around 14 percent—a proportion not seen since the 1920s. Many of these new immigrants—from Latin America, Asia (especially Vietnam and the Philippines), and Africa—are Catholic. According to a 2017 survey by the Center for Migration Studies, the foreign born make up about 15.1 million of the 67.7 million Catholics in America. Nevertheless, tensions between native-born Catholics and immigrants—especially Latinos—persist. One respondent to the CMS survey characterized the work of educating the native-born community as “the most challenging part of our job and mission,” and reported that “sadly enough some of our priests are not comfortable supporting our immigrant population.”

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, about 14.1 million of these Catholic immigrants are from Latin America (another 16.4 million Latino Catholics are native-born). As the largest single immigrant group, Latinos are a particularly common target for discrimination within Catholic parishes, reports University of Notre Dame sociologist Timothy Matovina. These tensions often surface as different groups try to share parish spaces, and it is not uncommon for “established” parishioners to resist Latino efforts to schedule Spanish masses, or to express the opinion that “our ancestors built this church” or “we were here first.” Many Catholics of European origin—forgetting, perhaps, their own ancestors’ experiences—“presume that newcomers who do not adopt U.S. customs and speak English in public are ungrateful or even not qualified to remain in the United States.” According to Matovina, one parishioner in Tulsa became so angry about hearing services in Spanish that he “offered to ‘drive a bus’ to evict undocumented immigrants from the country.”

This last comment encapsulates the views of many native-born Catholics: that this new generation of Catholic immigrants, particularly Latinos, are fundamentally different from previous generations of Catholic immigrants because they are undocumented. And it is true that the number of undocumented immigrants—the majority of whom come from Latin America, particularly Mexico—has risen dramatically since the 1970s. Undoubtedly, undocumented immigration presents significant challenges for governments, law enforcement officials, and immigrants themselves, which is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has continuously promoted just and humane immigration reform through their Migration Policy Office.

Yet undocumented immigration is not actually a new problem. The great wave of 1840–1920 immigration, which brought so many Catholics to the United States, was largely “undocumented” as well; immigrants were not required to have visas until 1924, and the majority, according to the American Immigration Council, arrived without any paperwork at all. Although there were laws barring certain categories of immigrants from entering the country, many of these excluded groups found that it was quite easy to enter without inspection, and frequently did so. (Until the turn of the last century, there were almost no officials at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it was easy to walk across that frontier.) After a series of restrictive new immigration laws was enacted in the 1920s, many of these undocumented immigrants were granted legal status through amnesty. Thus, the differences between the old and new immigrants may be less stark than they appear.

Over the coming years, it will be imperative to resolve these tensions among the laity. After all, immigration is the future of the church: Hispanics and Latinos constitute about 50 percent of all Catholics under the age of twenty-nine. Yet, as Timothy Matovina has pointed out, Latino Catholics, like the Italians and Poles a century ago, face a lack of representation in the U.S. Catholic clergy and hierarchy. Furthermore, recent studies by the Pew Research Center indicate that despite the fact that the church is becoming more Latino, Latinos are leaving the church in alarming numbers.

Yet there are also bright spots. According to the CARA survey mentioned above, the most active Catholics (in terms of church attendance and participation) are also the most enthusiastic about the ethnic mix that has resulted from the latest wave of immigration. And while the process of welcoming new Catholic immigrants to established parishes can be painful (the 2009 documentary Scenes From a Parish captures some of that pain), Catholics across the country are not fighting over neighborhoods and territory in the same way they did at the turn of the last century.

In the course of researching this article, I asked Fr. Tom Gaunt, the head of CARA, to compare the two eras. He was relatively sanguine. “There are a lot of headaches and challenges, but no huge conflicts,” he said. “There’s no breakaway or schism” like that of the Polish National Catholic Church.  Instead, Catholics are responding to the challenge and bridging ethnic divides. Many parishes in urban areas with large immigrant populations—such as St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Haitians, Latinos, white Catholics, and others worship together—celebrate multiculturalism and navigate the new church landscape with aplomb.

Indeed, it is possible that, over time, the new immigrants of today will follow the same patterns as the Irish, Poles, and Italians: intermarrying with other Catholics, assimilating and adapting to life in the United States, while continuing to incorporate their own religious practices into the rich fabric of American Catholic life.

It remains troubling, however, that Latinos and other recent Catholic immigrants continue to face discrimination and rejection from some Catholics, including those who—like that student in my class—are the descendants of earlier Catholic immigrants. There is still much work to be done, and Catholic immigration advocates from the hierarchy on down will have to grapple with the long and cyclical legacy of nativism within the American Catholic laity.

Julia G. Young is associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of America. 

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Published in the March 9, 2018 issue: View Contents
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