Book Reviews -- Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944 by James M. O'Toole

By Rowland, Thomas J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944 by James M. O'Toole


Rowland, Thomas J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


James M. O'Toole. Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944. Notre Dame, IN: U.P. of Notre Dame, 1992. vii + 324 pp., $28.95, cloth.

In Militant and Triumphant, James M. O'Toole explores a self-posed challenge as to how a study of a Catholic bishop of a bygone era can have any enduring significance. He is quite successful in addressing this challenge by unfolding and integrating the life of Cardinal O'Connell with questions of broader significance involving the impact of religious life and practice upon American life as a whole. As the title suggests, O'Connell must have proven to be a daunting subject for consideration. He has been generally regarded as a forbidding, austere, vain, even pompous cleric. Even if one comes away from reading this work, failing to discover any measurable sympathy for the man or any redeemable qualities of note in his character, O'Toole has shown that historical biography remains a vital way to gain insight into the life and times of the cardinal's contemporaries.

O'Toole's is a tidy and compact study, and its very organization underscores both the significance and limitations of O'Connell as the principal spokesman of the Catholic Church in Boston. The preponderant focus of this study lies with O'Connell's episcopal career through 1920, when a shocking scandal directly involving his nephew, the chancellor of the archdiocese, virtually derailed further career ambitions. Removed from the limelight, O'Toole maintains that the cardinal entered a lengthy "twilight" period in his career which itself is summarized in but a scant chapter. Nonetheless, the imprint of O'Connell, and particularly what he represented, continued to dominate the local church's thought and praxis from 1920 until after his death in 1944.

O'Toole briefly sketches O'Connell's meteoric rise to the cardinalate from his parent's emigration from Ireland. The youngest of ten children, O'Connell grew up in modest surroundings in Lowell, Massachusetts. The O'Connell siblings reflected an Irish-American success story, improving their economic and social standing with the passing years and allowing the future cardinal the luxury of pursuing academic studies. Little of his early years is revealed until his decision to enter the seminary after graduation from Boston College in 1881.

His entrance into the American College in Rome for theological studies significantly affected his career; it shaped his attitudes and established contacts proving useful to him at a later date. Following ordination in 1884 and a relatively brief stint in the pastoral assignments in Boston, O'Connell was promoted to the office of rector of the American College. Selected in 1895, he served as rector until 1901. His assignment in Rome reinforced his Roman identification and put him squarely aligned with those members of the hierarchy in America like Michael Corrigan and Bernard McQuaid who opposed the Americanist camp headed by James Gibbons and John Ireland. The Romanist view was at least symbolically vindicated by the mounting papal denunciations of Modernism at the turn of the century.

O'Connell's judicious networking with the Vatican, especially in gaining the favor of Cardinal Merry del Val, Pius X's most intimate advisor, won him the suprising appointment of Bishop of Portland, Maine in 1901. Labeling it as O'Connell's "dry run" for the eventual Boston position, O'Toole sees nothing extraordinary in his administration. The bishop appears to have eschewed a pastoral role and was acutely concerned with fiscal solvency and the administration of conformity in his far-flung diocese. A financial analysis performed by his successor and long-time antagonist, Bishop Louis S. Walsh, revealed that the distinction between O'Connell's personal purse and diocesan funds occasionally became blurred. …

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