Anticipations not realised

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVIII (8) start of chapter

Archbishop M'Closky addressed the assembled multitude who witnessed the ceremonial; and his words are at once so authoritative and so descriptive, as well of the progress of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts and the New England States, as of the material and social advance of the 'old world immigrants'—who in these States are principally Irish—that an extract or two from his admirable discourse may fittingly occupy a place in these pages.

Contrasting the past with the present, the Archbishop says :—

There are those most probably now within sound of my voice, who can remember when there was but one Catholic church in Boston, and when that sufficed, or had to suffice, not alone for this city, but for all New England; and how is it now? Churches and institutions multiplied, and daily continuing to multiply, on every side, in this city, throughout this State, in all, or nearly all, the cities and States of New England; so that, at this day, no portion of our country is enriched with them in greater proportionate numbers, none where they have grown up to a more flourishing condition, none where finished with more artistic skill, or presenting monuments of more architectural taste and beauty.

To God's blessing—not overlooking what may to some appear the natural and obvious reason, namely, 'the never ceasing tide of immigration that has been and still continues to be setting towards the American shores'—the Archbishop attributes this astonishing progress. He accurately represents the anticipations of those, and they were many, who held that the Catholic religion would never take root in the free soil of America—that it would wither and shrivel up in the pure atmosphere of New England enlightenment:—

But with regard to the Catholic portion of these immigrants, must we not bear in mind that their religion was looked on with much disfavour, by some, even with bitter prejudice and inveterate dislike? It was held and represented to be a religion of ignorance and superstition, full of the grossest absurdities and palpable errors. The prediction was confidently made that it could not long endure when once brought face to face with the light and intelligence of this free country—that, at best, it could never make any headway, except in its first migratory character, that it might spread along the surface, but could never take root in the soil; that, in process of time, as it would be brought more in contact with the teachings, as was said, of a purer gospel, it would be subjected more fully to the action of our republican institutions, it would lose its hold on the minds, even of its own followers, and be forced gradually to give way before the progressive and irresistible spirit of the age; and if this would not be true of the old world immigrants, it would be found so, at least, of their descendants. Their children, possessing here the advantages of better education, growing up more intelligent, more inquisitive, more independent, partaking more fully of American life and character, would be too sensible and too shrewd to cling to such an unpopular form of faith; unsuited to the country and the times, that would bring them neither worldly honour nor worldly gain, but, on the contrary, would stand in the way of their temporal interests, would hinder them from rising in the social scale—in a word, would confound them with the vulgar and ignorant horde that still blindly persisted in believing Transubstantiation, and adhering to the Pope of Rome.

The Archbishop eloquently describes the utter falsification of all these hopes and anticipations:—

Well, Beloved Brethren, have these predictions been fulfilled? Certainly there is nothing here that would lead me to think so; and, if not in the past or present, I see less sign of their being so in the future. Many, perhaps most of you, are from a foreign laud. Well, do you love the old faith now less than you did when you first landed on these free shores? Is it less dear to you here, in this home of your adoption, than it was on your native soil in the home of your childhood? Do you cherish it less warmly? do you cling to it less firmly? would you die for it less freely? I think that, with one accord, you will answer No. So, throughout every portion of this great Republic, which you love as ardently as do its own sons, for which you would lay down your lives as generously, to the same question your brethren would give the same response—No! a thousand times No! But your children, how has it been with them?

In their case, assuredly, the test has been a severe, and more dangerous, because a more insidious one. Owing to the causes at which I have already hinted, and to other influences which I need not now enumerate, many indeed have been lost to the household of the faith —more so in times past than in the present—yet nowhere, I venture to affirm, will stauncher or firmer, or more consistent Catholics be found than among these American native born; and while they thus cherish their holy faith, do they not, at the same time, vie in learning, in intelligence, in spirited enterprise, in patriotism and honest worth, with their fellow citizens in all the various professions and other pursuits of life? If I needed proof or illustration, I should have only to point to many who are here now before me or at my side, to your own honoured Bishop at their head. But why do I say this? Not surely in any boastful or invidious spirit,—but simply to show that prophecy concerning us has failed—that our holy Catholic faith can take, has taken, root in this free soil; nowhere indeed does it seem to find another more congenial—nowhere does it spread its roots more widely or sink them more deeply—nowhere does it put forth more rapid growth, or flourish with more health and vigour, or give promise of more abundant fruit,—and this, we contend, has come to pass only by God's blessing.

Nor was the Archbishop without referring to the important acquisition to the Church which every day records—of converts of thoughtful and searching minds, blameless lives, and good social position, who have no worldly object to gain, and who perhaps may have much to lose, by embracing a faith against which the passions and prejudices of the world are as yet arrayed.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America