Immigration, Ethnicity, and Religious Identity  in 19th Century America

Although this is a land of immigrants, immigration has always been a matter of controversy, and newcomers have usually faced suspicion and hostility. From worries in 18th-century British colonial America over the many German and Scotch-Irish immigrants, though the second wave of immigration between the 1830’s and the Civil War and then the so called “New Immigration’ from the 1880’s to 1920, to the fourth wave of immigrants from the 1960’s to the present, new settlers have had to deal with the question of balancing diverse ethnicity and American identity. Religion, often a major component of anyone’s identity, has been central to the process of adapting to America. It has often been at the flashpoint where the Many encounter the One.

For the Roman Catholic Church, the problem was more than just dealing with the hostility and prejudice of the Protestant majority. As a denomination of immigrants, ethnic tensions within the church were a problem, as these selections illustrate.

I. James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, defends the 19th century flood of Irish immigration. [1916]

Perhaps someone will ask what I think of Irish immigration in general. Ought the Irish to stay at home, or ought they emigrate very largely, and especially to the United States, It is a grave problem. Ireland is a very ancient nation, with a very glorious history, and her race of men is pre‑eminently adapted to the soil on which they live. Divine Providence seems to have matched the lovely fertile island with a population of brave and industrious men, and pure and beautiful women. Surely this has not been in order to tear them roughly from the farm and the hamlet, the mill and the forge, the cradle and the spinning wheel, to scatter them like the leaves of the forest or the sands of the sea . . . . 

Yet this same history shows us the Irish race as possessed beyond all others with the spirit of the world‑wanderer. The earliest reliable utterances of their history bear witness that they were seafaring, adventurous people; and since their conversion to Christianity there can be no doubt that this spirit has been heightened and consecrated by religious ardor for the propagation of Christianity. Willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly, they have been a people of missionaries longer than any other race. No other people ever gave themselves en bloc to Christian missions as they; no other people ever suffered for their Catholic faith as they. And when, with the dawn of this century, the remarkable movements began which have today produced some 130,000,000 of English‑speaking people, and been the chief element in the renaissance of Catholicism from its Continental tomb, it was the Irish who were the pioneers, they being then almost the only English‑speaking Catholics, and devoting themselves the world over to the planting of the Catholic faith, the support of its claims and its missionaries, and the sustenance of the Papal authority. They are no longer the only English‑speaking Catholics, though they are yet nearly everywhere in the majority; but we would be base and ingrate to forget that it was they who bore the brunt of the struggle for many decades of this century. 

I would not, therefore, discourage Irish immigration, because there are at stake more than economic considerations. There are at stake the interests of the Catholic religion, which in this land and in this age are largely bound up with the interests of the Irish people. God's hand is upon them, going and coming; and I prefer to believe that He who harmonizes the motion of the planets and the flow of the tides, is also First Agent and Prime Mover in those no less mysterious movements by which peoples pass from one land to another . . . .

II. Father P. M. Abbelen, a Milwaukee priest, writes a memorial in defense of the rights of Catholic Germans to maintain their ethnic identify. [1886]

1. The question concerns the relation of non‑English to English parishes, and especially the relation of German to Irish parishes in the United States of North America. 

2. We ask of the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide that it so define this relation that German parishes shall be entirely independent of Irish parishes, or on a par with them; that rectors of Irish parishes shall not be able to exercise any parochial jurisdiction over Germans enrolled in any German church, or who by right should be thus enrolled, whether they be newcomers from Germany or born in America of German parents . . . .

Nearly everywhere the opinion prevails that Irish rectors are truly and by right the parish priest of all those who were born in America, as if having over them an eminent domain; that German priests are, of course, necessary to take care of the souls of Germans while they speak the German language, but that it cannot fail to happen that they shall in the course of time lose their language and learn English, and that the sooner this happens the better; that the ecclesiastical status of the Germans is therefore a transitory one, and that German parishes should not be put on an equal footing with English parishes. There are also some who think that it is contrary to canon law that there should be two independent parishes in the same territory, and for this reason also that the English should be the only parish. . . .

In all this controversy, besides a difference of language, we must not by any means make light of the difference and discrepancy of Catholic customs as they are to be found among Germans and Irish. The Irish on account of the oppression and persecution which they have suffered for religion’s sake in their own land, love simplicity in divine service, and in all practice of religion, and do not care much for pomp and splendor. But the Germans, from the liberty which as a rule they have enjoyed in the exercise of their religion from the earliest times, and the traditions of their fathers, love the beauty of the church edifice and the pomp of ceremonies, belfries and bells, organs and sacred music, processions, feast days, sodalities, and the most solemn celebration of First Communion and weddings. These and other like things, although not essential to Catholic faith and life, foster piety and are so dear and sacred to the faithful that not without great danger could they be taken away from them.

Then, again, Germans differ very much from the Irish in the administration of  ecclesiastical goods and affairs. For nearly everywhere the former so manage their temporal affairs that the rectors, with a body of laymen, or even laymen alone, properly elected, carry the administration, while the Irish leave all these things in the hands of the priests. It must be confessed, it sometimes happens among the Germans that the laymen meddle too much in such affairs, but this rarely happens; nearly everywhere the temporal affairs in German parishes are administered exceptionally well.

Finally, even manners and social customs of the two nationalities differ exceedingly. Thus it happens that scarcely ever will you find Germans and Irish united in matrimony. All this is here said neither to favor the Germans nor to disparage the Irish. Rather these things are said by way of narrative and as matters of fact, that it may be made clear how vastly one differs from the other, these two nationalities which are the principal parts of the Church in the United States, and how necessary it is that each should have its own priests and churches co‑ordinate and independent. With the lapse of time, by a certain natural formative process one will become more assimilated to the other. But God forbid that any one should dare, and most of all, that bishops and priests should endeavor to accelerate this assimilation by suppressing the language and customs of the Germans. The German temperament and a most sad experience demonstrate that their effort is not conducive to edification, but for the destruction and ruin of souls.

III. Julian Miranda remembers early 20th-century problems faced by Italian children in Catholic school.  [From  S. H. LaGumina, The Immigrants Speak (New York, Center for Migration Studies, 1979, 131-32. 

On the topic of the church, it must be remembered that Southern Italian men were not so church scrupulous as the women although they were Catholic. I think no one should mistake their non-church attendance for a lack of belief in the Roman Catholic faith. The seeming lack of scrupulosity in Italians should not delude anybody about their lack of commitment to Christianity and its central ideas. I think there is a great paradox, and a great ambivalence there. Basically they dislike the clergy, and if they dislike the Italian clergy they despise the American clergy. They were very cruelly treated by this group. I remember when I was a child going for my First Communion and, I was asked by one of the nuns to recite the Our Father. I had only known it in either Sicilian or Latin (dog Latin). I knew what was going to happen but I got up and recited it and of course the class guffawed and the nun made fun of me. In a rage, I left the class. It was a Sunday and my grandfather was coming to the house, saw my face and said che  succedio  ? ( what happened?). At first, I did not want to tell him because of the omerta (you did not whine) but I finally told him that I said my prayer in Sicilian and they laughed at me. Inside of thirty seconds he had me by the arm and had propelled me up to the church. There, he got hold of Fr. Fitzsimmons and the nun and verbally laid them out. Nevertheless, this affected my church attendance. The lack of concern by the church for the immigrants and the cultural difference between the Italian and Irish Catholicism was responsible for a lot of the movement of Italians out of the Church toward Protestantism. This was also, however, a way to upward mobility. Had there been  Italian clergy there is no question but that it would have made a difference. First of all the mere fact of being able to converse with the priest in your own language is important, but the role of the priest has been limited until very recently. The priest was not really a social agent by and large. I do not think priests gave social assistance beyond the performance of their strictly religious functions.