In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1843-1958

By Deacon, Florence | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview
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In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1843-1958


Deacon, Florence, The Catholic Historical Review


In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1843-1958. By Steven M. Avella. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 799. $45.00 paperback.)

In the Richness of the Earth by Steven M. Avella is, in his words, "in many cases, boilerplate, a first draft, a gathering of sources and episodes," but this first effort to write a comprehensive history is much more. While focusing primarily on internal Catholic life, Avella also elucidates its dynamic interaction with the larger economic, social and political forces of Wisconsin and those of the universal Church. Mandated by the Archbishop of Milwaukee to write an "inclusive "history, Avella balances aspects of a traditional institutional history that concentrates on the founding of parishes and the clerical hierarchy with accounts of the contributions of women religious, vibrant communities, and the strong Catholic youth culture of the mid-twentieth century.

Avella divides his encyclopedic text into only four parts, which makes a concise summary or understandable overview difficult. While the early years are encumbered with unnecessary detail (e.g., who sold a piece of land to sisters 150 years ago), the personality and human idiosyncrasies of major leaders come alive under Avella's skilled character descriptions. He is least successful when he relies on the work of others for the early history, but comes into his own in Parts III and IV when using his own research on the twentieth century.

Avella puts Part I ("Becoming Visible 1843-1868") into the context of the Catholic Counter-Reformation reforms resulting in lay devotionalism, new forms of religious and clerical life, and more effective church leadership, as well as into the context of the mystique of the "frontier." He recounts how the local environment and the folkways of the people resulted in a "dialectic of encounter, transformation and synthesis" (p. 4) which continually recreated a visible church of various "Catholicisms" based on ethnicity.

Part II, "How Firm a Foundation," describes the period between 1868 and 1903 as marred by conflict between German- and English-speaking Catholics over temperance, the need for parish schools, and the "discouraging" of American seminarians. Avella excels at humanizing church politics and gives a convincing account of power plays behind choosing a new archbishop, including the influence of Mother Caroline Fries, S.S.N.D., over Archbishop Henni. He also gives spirited accounts of conflicts between laity and clergy over parish governance, between German- and English-speaking clergy over the nature of ethnic parishes and German hegemony in Wisconsin, between Catholics and Protestants over Bible reading in public schools (the Edgerton Bible case), between the state legislature and the Catholic bishops over whether parents or the state had the right to educate children (Bennett Law), and between Germans and Polish immigrants over efforts to "Germanize" them. Avella concludes with a description of how industrialization encouraged the immigration of new Catholic groups with a resulting growth in sisterhoods and the creation of institutions to provide education, health, and social services.

Part III,"Ecce Quam Bonum et Quam Jucundum," describes 1903-1940 as a period of maturation, centralization, consolidation, Romanization, Americanization, and professionalization of the archdiocese influenced both by the increasing professionalism in American life and the codification of canon law.

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