One Song, Many Voices: Historical Exhibition Looks at New York's Catholic Presence

By O'Donovan, Leo | National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2008 | Go to article overview

One Song, Many Voices: Historical Exhibition Looks at New York's Catholic Presence


O'Donovan, Leo, National Catholic Reporter


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Friends visiting New York often ask what they should see in the city. From now until Dec. 31, when the absorbing new exhibition on Catholic history at the Museum of the City of New York closes, I'll know where to take them. "Catholics in New York 1808-1946," begins with the diocese of New York's establishment by Pope Pins VII in 1808. It ends with the passage of the G.I. Bill, which enabled many more Catholics to attend college and move to the suburbs, especially Long Island, where Nassau County was at the time the fastest-growing county in America.

The show is organized around three central themes: the distinctive family and community life that developed in the city's parishes; the institutions created to serve the educational, health and social welfare needs of Catholics and also their fellow citizens; and the increasing influence Catholics came to exercise in New York politics. These three chapters weave nicely into each other, and each reveals two common themes. The first: what Terry Golway calls "the common language of the Mass, the sacraments, the symbols of ... faith, and the belief in redemption." The second: a persistently recurring anti-Catholicism. Mr. Golway has edited a vibrantly illustrated book of essays, Catholics in New York: Society, Culture, and Politics, 1808-1946, to accompany the show.

Anti-Catholicism was already present in colonial New York. Public worship by the small Catholic population of the time was forbidden, and a 1700 law barred priests from entering the city. Only with the American Revolution did religious freedom truly take root. After the British troops evacuated New York City in 1783, the new state Constitution in 1784 guaranteed universal freedom of religion. The Catholic community then grew steadily, fueled by waves of French, Irish and German immigrants. In 1806 one of every seven New Yorkers was Catholic, and by 1865 almost half the population of the city was Catholic.

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"Parishes" for Catholic New Yorkers came to mean not only churches but schools and fraternal organizations. To suggest the increasingly organized and vital parish life of the time, the exhibition gathers Bibles in French and Spanish as well as English, a little girl's lovely first Communion dress, cap and lace veil; report cards, a band uniform and dance card. There are more than 100 haunting family photographs and, best of all, from a later date, Robert Burghardt's evocative folk art mural "Growing Up in New York City, 192638" (circa 1982), with images of just about every imaginable family activity.

The dominant figure of 19th century Catholic New York, and a major influence throughout the country as well, was John Hughes (1797-1864), the city's fourth bishop and first archbishop, known as "Dagger John" after his forceful personality and the shape of the cross he drew next to his signature. Archbishop Hughes aggressively defended his immigrant church against its nativist critics and chose to build walls rather than bridges, separating Catholics from the larger community into their own institutions. St. Patrick's Cathedral, planned as the largest Gothic cathedral in the Western hemisphere, is perhaps the best-known monument to his fierce courage. Designed by the great American architect James Renwick, its cornerstone was laid in 1858 and the consecration took place in 1879.

While the history of Catholic New York is often told according to the series of its powerful archbishops, the exhibition vividly roots its story also in the institutions organized and largely led by women. The Sisters of Charity opened St. Vincent's Hospital in 1849. Other orders joined the effort, and within 75 years Catholic hospitals had more than 4,500 beds, one-quarter of the city's total in privately owned charitable hospitals. …

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