Friday, May 29, 2020

Leslie Woodcock Tentler's "American Catholics"

Leslie Woodcock Tentler is professor emerita in the department of history at the Catholic University of America and the author of Catholics and Contraception: An American History.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, American Catholics: A History, and reported the following:
Page 99 in just about any book will give you a sense of the author’s voice. That is certainly true of page 99 in American Catholics: A History. In terms of the book’s contents, however, page 99 might in this instance be a bit misleading. The first half of the page deals with the career of New York’s Archbishop John Hughes, who governed the Catholic Church in New York during the first wave of massive immigration to the United States. Himself an Irish immigrant, Hughes embodied the aspirations and resentments of his mostly poor and socially marginalized flock, providing a sometimes startling contrast to the conciliatory public style embraced by most of the nation’s early Catholic leaders. He was an especially aggressive presence in New York’s tumultuous politics, fielding his own slate of candidates at one juncture to defend what he regarded as Catholics’ right to public funds for their separate schools. Hughes was also a formidable builder, presiding over the construction of over 100 churches in his archdiocese, including the early stages of the monumental St. Patrick’s Cathedral that still graces New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Hughes was a significant figure in American Catholic history and deserves his place in American Catholics, as do the other bishops who make brief appearances. But my intent in the book was to give pride of place to lay Catholics, along with the parish clergy and the vowed religious who made it possible for Catholics, or at least the urbanites among them, to inhabit a separate religious world for many generations. Dipping into the book at page 99 might cause a potential reader to think otherwise. The latter portion of the page, however, reminds the discerning reader that American Catholics is history written “from below” as well as from above. It inaugurates a discussion, continued on subsequent pages, of lay religious practice in a heavily immigrant population and the communal ethos to which the gothic fortress that is St. Patrick’s Cathedral bears eloquent testimony. (The church, begun in 1858, was not completed until 1888.) Embodying immigrant pride and sacrifice, St. Patrick’s stood for a popular Catholicism that was simultaneously defensive and triumphal—an ethos far removed from the genteel interiority of colonial Maryland’s Catholic elite.
Learn more about American Catholics at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue