The Priests, the Nuns and the People: Changes in the Church and Religious Life Are Reflected in the Bronx Neighborhood of 'Doubt'
Flanigan, James, National Catholic Reporter
In the recent film "Doubt," set in 1964, Fr. Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, pastor of a parish in the Bronx, wants to bring the church closer to the people. He tells Sr. Aloysius Beauvier, principal of the parish elementary school, that "we [the clergy and nuns] are really just like them," meaning the parishioners.
But Sr. Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, protests vehemently, "We are not like them. We are different, and we must be different. These working-class people depend on us" to be different, to be above and apart from them, to guide them and to care for their children whom they have entrusted to us.
Both were right.
Fr. Flynn reflects the thinking of the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965. Sr. Aloysius accurately reflects the thinking of the Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s and the neighborhoods of Irish immigrants and their Irish-American offspring. These were the "working-class" people we see in the movie, wearing their Sunday best to church, looking up reverently as the priest gives the homily.
I grew up in a Bronx neighborhood just like the one depicted in "Doubt." My neighborhood, west of Yankee Stadium, was named Highbridge for a footbridge over the Harlem River that was built in the 1830s by Irish laborers who later built the New York Central Railroad. The bridge was a registered landmark, included in guidebooks of the American Institute of Architects. But few of the Irish working people in the 1950s, grocery clerks and warehouse men, waitresses and part-time domestics, policemen, firefighters and bartenders, knew about architecture or any of the other arts.
They had come with little formal education from small farms and towns in the west of Ireland, and they were happy to have work. They were between two worlds. Their temporal lives were hitched to the economy of the New York metropolitan area, while their emotional lives remained back in Ireland, which they always called "home."
But their spiritual lives, and most important, the guidance of their children, were cared for by Sacred Heart Church, which comforted the old and taught the young.
Its school took their children, corrected the Irish brogues they brought from home, and taught them of a new country and a wider world. It taught them the value of their individual lives: "You are a temple of the Holy Ghost," St. Jane Frances de Chantal would say "You are responsible for yourself and others."
The church protected them in practical ways also. If a young man stole a car, the police didn't book him but telephoned the pastor of Sacred Heart, then Msgr. William Humphrey, who inevitably would "know the boy's parents." Msgr. Humphrey would then ask the car's owner (probably a non-Catholic) not to press charges, assuring him that the car would be restored and any damages paid. The church would pony up the money The parents would pay it back, then the boy would work it off. A police record was avoided, a productive life, perhaps, saved.
If the young fellow persisted in recalcitrant ways, as my friend, the rangy, wild Bobby O'Toole, did, he would be sent to Lincoln Hall, a reform school in then-rural Westchester County run by the New York archdiocese.
The church was protector, but a distant one necessarily Sr. Aloysius understood that. The unlettered parents seldom if ever spoke to priests or to the nuns and Christian Brothers who taught their children with anything other than bowed deference. A mother trying to defend her truant son before Fr. Stanislaus Jablonski the legendary dean of discipline at Cardinal Hayes High School, might say that the boy had left for school but returned home feeling ill because "he's sick, Father."
Whereupon Fr. Jablonski, with courteous authority toward the mother but scarcely an unnecessary glance at the son, would say, "He's sick of school, Mrs. O'Connor, that's what he's sick of." And the mother would bow her head and concede that, of course, Father was the better judge. …