Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia

By Shepherd, Samuel C., Jr. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia


Shepherd, Samuel C., Jr., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia. By GERALD P. FOGARTY, S.J. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. xxx, 688 pp. $34.95.

VIRGINIANS will welcome Commonwealth Catholicism as an important addition to recent scholarship that depicts the South's complex religious heritage. In an account reaching from the sixteenth century to the 1970s, University of Virginia professor Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. cautions that his research was limited by the paucity of records left by laypeople, priests, and even bishops. Nonetheless, he provides a volume rich in information and insights.

During Virginia's early history, it "was not a hospitable place for Catholics" (p. 1), Fogarty observes. Catholic leaders struggled to overcome a host of problems. In the colonial period Catholics endured waves of discriminatory laws and gained some relief only after the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. With Catholic communities composed mostly of French and Irish immigrants, the Diocese of Richmond was created in 1820. Including most of the modern states of Virginia and West Virginia, the diocese remained understaffed and underfunded and relied upon itinerant missionary priests to reach its scattered population. Virginia laws that prohibited the incorporation of church property added to financial woes. Priests had to cope with fractious, independent congregations whose democratic attitudes conveyed little deference for religious authorities. Catholics encountered episodic outbursts of animosity culminating in the Know-- Nothing political movement of the 1850s. Conscious of being a religious minority, Catholics felt the need to tread softly and thereby accommodate the dominant Protestant culture. Still, before the Civil War, the diocese established St. Peter's Cathedral in Richmond as well as schools, an orphan asylum, St. Vincent's Hospital in Norfolk, and sturdy churches from Portsmouth to Lynchburg to Martinsburg.

Virginia Catholics rallied behind the Confederacy, and priests served as chaplains, an important role in a state filled with Catholic soldiers from the Gulf Coast. Focusing on the Daughters of Charity, Fogarty concludes that "the hospital work of the sisters on both sides of the fray did much to change the image of the Church in the United States, particularly in the South" (p. 176). After the war Catholic laymen ascended socially and politically, and "Richmond became a stepping-stone to national prominence for its bishops" (p. …

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