When It All Came Together: Bishop John J. Wright and the Diocese of Worcester, 1950-1959

Article excerpt

I want to express my sincere gratitude to the members of the Association for allowing me to serve as president. I have drawn inspiration over a lifetime from the work of so many of you. When I was still a graduate student, more than thirty years ago, Father Harry Browne tracked me down at one of these AHA meetings to challenge my first published article, which contained some criticism of my elders in the field of U.S. Catholic history. Brown, who became a lifelong friend, then introduced me to Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, and through the two of them and another benefactor, Francis L. Broderick, president in 1968, I was ushered into this field, mentored we would say today. Their witness persuaded me that one could do no better work for our church and our country than to join the small but talented brigade of scholars, historians, theologians, and social scientists who were opening up the whole field of American Catholic Studies. To have the privilege of presiding over this Association, one of the centers of Catholic intellectual life, is a high honor for which I am sincerely grateful.

Please regard these highly provisional remarks about Bishop John J. Wright and the infant Diocese of Worcester in the 1950's as an invitation to further reflection on the experience of the American Catholic community between the end of World War II and the opening of the Second Vatican Council. When I began to work in this field everyone argued that we needed more studies of the American Church in the twentieth century if we were to understand our experience of change in the 1960's. We now have had an exceptional development of American Catholic historical scholarship, including remarkable work on Catholic life from 1900 through the 1930's. But, aside from the pioneering work of John McGreevy,1 the years of war and cold war remain more or less untouched. One result is that we historians have made a less significant contribution than we should have to the self-understanding, and thus to the common life, of the American Church.

Several years ago, after finishing my history of the Diocese of Syracuse, I delivered the annual Loyola Lecture at Lemoyne College. I organized the talk around three questions about the church of Syracuse: what did it mean when they put it together? what did it mean when they had it together? what did it mean when it all (well, almost all) fell apart? I still think they are pretty good questions. Today I want to ask the second question of another particular time and place, Worcester under John Wright.2

Did it really all come together in Worcester in the 1950's? If one will accept a caveat about the ambiguity of all success stories, I think the answer is yes. The coming together began on February 1, 1950, when the Associated Press wire-informed the local newspaper that Worcester county was now separated from the Diocese of Springfield and was a new diocese with its cathedral at St. Paul's Church, under John J. Wright, at that moment auxiliary bishop of Boston. The news was not unexpected; rumors had spread after the death several months earlier of the Bishop of Springfield, Thomas Mary O'Leary, that Worcester's time had finally come. St. Paul's was a surprise. Built two generations earlier as a potential cathedral by an impressive Americanist,John Power, St. Paul's leadership role had been lost to another church and its powerful pastor. As for the new bishop, he had some important clerical contacts locally but was unknown to the general public.John Deedy, then a young reporter for the Worcester Telegram, was sent out to find Wright because he had met him briefly in Dublin a year earlier. Deedy, later picked by Wright to begin his diocesan newspaper, remembers that he reported that Wright, like any good Bostonian, was a Red Sox fan. Later he learned that the bishop hadn't the faintest interest in sports.3

Worcester county was forty by fifty miles, with numerous small towns, some beginning to grow into suburbs. …