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.