Irish Catholics and French Creoles: Ethnic Struggles within the Catholic Church in New Orleans, 1835-1920

Article excerpt

At the funeral service for Archbishop James Hubert Blenk of New Orleans in 1917, Bishop John Edward Gunn of Natchez painted a grim picture of the state of Catholicism in this Latin city of the South:

If anyone imagines the position of Archbishop of New Orleans to be a sinecure, let him explain why it is a proverb here that no Archbishop can survive ten years work .... Is it the worry? Is it the want of responsiveness? Is it the consciousness that in spite of a devoted clergy, of efficient educational advantages, the old Voltairianism still lingers...?

Blenk, a native of Bavaria, Germany, had been Archbishop of New Orleans since 1905. In his funeral speech, Gunn had undoubtedly referred to Blenk's frustrated attempts to improve the standing of the Catholic Church in his diocese. These efforts had been beset by opposition and outright antagonism from both clergy and laity alike. Much to Blenk's humiliation, the Catholic population failed to respond to his appeals for a major seminary for New Orleans. His campaign to restore the crumbling St. Louis Cathedral also came to nothing. These constant setbacks may well have contributed to Blenk's untimely death from a heart attack in 1917 at the age of 61.1

Gunn was not the only contemporary observer who noted the widespread religious indifference of so much of the Catholic population of New Orleans. In 1916, in an unpublished manuscript entitled, "Our Native Clergy," the Reverend Leo Gassler, the Swiss vicar general of the diocese, posed the question,"Is Catholic Louisiana backwards in matters religious?" Gassler argued that the Church in Louisiana was somehow less American than the Catholic Church elsewhere. Writing in 1916, two years after World War I had cut off the European supply of priests to the city, he lamented the inability of the diocese to produce its own native clergy. Gassler also noted that his clerical colleagues in the North often spoke disparagingly about Louisiana Catholicism. The Swiss prelate fully accepted their criticism and by way of explanation referred to the grim legacy of the French colonial heritage that still manifested itself. Under French rule the colonists had never provided for the Church, which had always relied on state and aristocratic philanthropy. In the Northern cities Gassler noted that "persecution from without" had stimulated the Church.'

Interestingly, Gassler pointed to the lack of immigrants as a major reason for the backward state of Catholicism in his diocese. However, this view of New Orleans history needs to be questioned. New Orleans was hardly devoid of Catholic immigrants in its history. Indeed, during the four decades before the Civil War, it had drawn more immigrants through its port than any North American city except for New York. True, this immigration flow slowed dramatically from 1860 to 1880, but thereafter significant new immigration from Sicily, South America, and the Philippines added to the ranks of foreign-born Catholics in New Orleans.

Clearly, what preoccupied Gassler was not so much the number of immigrants in New Orleans but their failure to have any great impact on the character of Catholicism in the city. This view of immigrant church relations seems paradoxical. One might assume that immigrants would hinder rather than enhance the development of an American Catholic Church. Yet, when one studies the history of American Catholicism on a national level, one cannot ignore the vital role played by immigrants, above all Irish immigrants, in transforming the Catholic Church in the United States into an American institution.

But Gassler was correct: New Orleans was an anomaly. Somehow its nineteenth-century immigrants failed to seize control and transform the Catholic Church in New Orleans. Despite a heavy influx of Irish into the city in the mid-nineteenth century, they proved unable to push aside the French and Creole leaders of New Orleans Catholicism, in marked contrast to their victories elsewhere in the United States. …