Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Gender Roles, and the Decline of Devotional Catholicism

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Gender Roles, and the Decline of Devotional Catholicism

Article excerpt

For twenty years following 1930 Catholic women and men flocked to St. Philomena church in Pittsburgh's east end to participate in the novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. In doing so, they joined with thousands of other Catholics across America performing devotions to perhaps the most popular religious icon of the twentieth century.(1) Though the priests at St. Philomena had long encouraged parishioners to support the devotion, it grew to great popularity when the pastor, Father Meighan, began the perpetual weekly novena in 1930.(2) From that point on, Catholics could attend any series of nine consecutive Wednesday services which included a sermon, public prayers and hymns, blessing of the sick, benediction, and then veneration of the painting at the Communion rail.(3) They attended in greater and greater numbers. Eventually, the ritual proved so popular that Father Meighan had to schedule five separate meeting times each Wednesday to accommodate the pressing demand. At its height of popularity, parishioners attended at 8:30 in the morning, 3:00 in the afternoon, and at 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 in the evening. He encouraged other parishes to begin devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help as well, both to relieve the pressure on his parish and to spread the veneration even more widely. By 1939, forty-four parishes and convents in the Pittsburgh diocese offered weekly novenas of their own.(4) Still the crowds came to St. Philomena's every Wednesday, so that each session averaged 340 participants, exceeding the small church's seating capacity. On some special occasions, such as the 1933 Immaculate Conception novena, 4,000 Catholics crowded in and around the church for nine consecutive weeks.(5)

But in 1950 the crowds began to thin. In fact, their numbers declined so rapidly that by the end of the decade the once popular devotion drew only 40 percent of the 1950 attendance. The trend continued unmistakably and dramatically, so that over the next two decades attendance dwindled to only 10 percent of the 1950 average.(6) What caused this decline in attendance? Why did a devotional practice so popular for two decades preceding 1950 fail to draw Catholics in the decades following?

The answers to these questions provide a window through which we can view a much broader transformation in American Catholic religious sensibility that began in the wake of World War II and continued throughout the 1950s. The pattern identified here suggests that the 1950s were not the conservative, tradition-bound years we once thought, but rather a dynamic and tumultuous decade. If this proves true, then the dramatic transformation in American Catholicism of the past few decades began at least ten years before the Second Vatican Council.

Similarly, the changes in participation levels in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotion indicate that American women's ideology of gender may have changed before the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. Our study indicates that Catholic women who once embraced a ritual that affirmed their roles as passive nurturers increasingly rejected that feminine ideal. That they did so in the years before the rebirth of the feminist movement suggests that they had begun to redefine their lives earlier than we previously believed.

Exploring the Decline

Attendance at the perpetual novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help had undergone fluctuations before, but these changes resulted from readily identified causes. For example, the Depression pushed attendance upward to over 3,000 participants weekly, with an all-time high annual average coming in 1936, when Pittsburghers experienced the exacerbating effects of a dramatic flood that rendered 100,000 residents homeless.(7) World War II kept attendance lower than it otherwise would have been because Catholics observed travel restrictions that wartime gasoline and rubber rationing necessitated.(8)

But the 1950s decline defies ready explanation. The Redemptorist priests who ran the parish continued to emphasize the devotion fervently throughout the decade, so that parishioners and others could have perceived no lessening of official sanction and encouragement for the practice. …

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