Opposition to Catholic Reformatories

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVII (2) start of chapter

Unfortunately for the success of the Catholics of America in this great work of juvenile reformation, their resources, at least hitherto, have not been equal to meet the evils arising from orphanage, or from the poverty, the neglect, or the viciousness of parents. Thus a wide field was left of necessity to those of a different communion: but it is much to be deplored that the opportunity of doing good was not always embraced in the right spirit, and that the gratification of achieving an unworthy triumph over a rival sect was preferred to the purer delight of discharging a holy duty in the spirit of Christian charity. In some few cases the work of reformation was taken up in the right spirit—in a spirit of noble charity, and in the loftiest sense of justice to one's neighbour; but, alas for poor fallible human nature! in too many instances it was entered upon as much from a motive of active hostility, as from a desire to grapple with a social evil of admitted magnitude and danger. No Catholic—especially no Irish Catholic—could be insensible to the scandalous nature of the war which, under the mask of benevolence and philanthropy, was waged against the children of poverty and the victims of neglect. But, until lately, whether from want of organisation, lack of means, or the urgency of other claims, little was done, save through religious institutions, to resist the fierce assault or the insidious approach of the proselytiser. In the Pastoral Letter of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, the Bishops of the American Church thus refer to this question of vital moment:—

It is a melancholy fact, and a very humiliating avowal for us to make, that a very large proportion of the idle and vicious youth of our principal cities are the children of Catholic parents. Whether from poverty or neglect, the ignorance in which so many parents are involved as to the true nature of education, and of their duties as Christian parents, or the associations which our youth so easily form with those who encourage them to disregard parental admonition; certain it is, that a large number of Catholic parents either appear to have no idea of the sanctity of the Christian family, and of the responsibility imposed on them of providing for the moral training of their offspring, or fulfil this duty in a very imperfect manner. Day after day, these unhappy children are caught in the commission of petty crimes, which render them amenable to the public authorities; and, day after day, are they transferred by hundreds from the sectarian reformatories in which they have been placed by the courts, to distant localities, where they are brought up in ignorance of, and most commonly in hostility to, the Religion in which they have been baptized. The only remedy for this great and daily augmenting evil is to provide Catholic Protectories or Industrial Schools, to which such children may be sent; and where, under the only influence that is known to have really reached the roots of vice, the youthful culprit may cease to do evil and learn to do good.

Practical efforts have been made to meet the evil; and in the cities of New York, Boston, and Baltimore, institutions for the protection and reformation of criminal or destitute children have been formed, and, though but a short time in existence, are working with marked success, with the approval of every liberal-minded Protestant of those great centres of American civilisation. The dignified and praiseworthy attitude taken by Catholics, in their efforts to protect the faith of helpless little ones of their own communion, and relieve themselves from a cause of the gravest reproval, excited a storm of opposition from those who had much rather know that Catholics deserted their duty, and thus afforded their enemies the continued power of injuring and right of despising them.

'In obtaining our charter,' say the conductors of the New York institution, of which the late Dr. Ives, a distinguished convert, was president, 'we had to struggle against two objections urged with surprising zeal and pertinacity. The first, that ample provision for vicious and destitute children had already been made by the State, and that an increase would only tend to injure the existing institutions. The second, that these institutions were organised on the fairest and most liberal basis, by excluding all distinctive religion; while the one whose incorporation we sought was professedly sectarian in its character, being placed under the exclusive control of Catholics.' To the first objection they pleaded, what has since been fully admitted, the enormous magnitude of the evil, and the inadequacy of existing means to meet it; and to the second, that if the State had shown its fairness and liberality only by excluding, in fact, all distinctive religion from its institutions, it was high time that one institution, at least, should be organised on a different basis; should professedly and really make distinctive religion its actuating and controlling power, as nothing short of this could so sway the hearts of children as to make them, in the end, good Christians and good men. The absolute falsehood, in fact, of the second objection is thus torn to shreds in the Report:—

But the question was put:—'Has the State succeeded in excluding from its institutions all distinctive religion, and all sectarian teaching and influence? Inquire at "The Juvenile Asylum" "The House of Refuge," "The Children's Aid Society" "The Five Points House of Industry." Is not the Protestant religion inculcated in these institutions, and only the Catholic religion excluded? Where, among the managers of all these institutions, is a Catholic to be found? Where, among their superintendents, their teachers, their preachers, do you find a Catholic? Where among their acts of worship is a Catholic act tolerated? While, on the other hand, who does not know, that Protestant worship, in all its various forms, is, without opposition, introduced? And Protestant doctrine, in all its shades and contradictions, is inculcated? Indeed, we did not find it necessary to debate this question. Protestant periodicals not only admitted but gloried in the facts. They boasted that the State is Protestant in all her institutions, and that it is an act of great indulgence on her part that Catholicity is allowed to exist at all; that we, as Catholics, should be grateful that the power of the State has not been invoked to arrest our progress and put an end to our institutions. Can it, therefore, we enquired, be thought unreasonable, while such a spirit actuates the Protestant community, that Catholic parents should be averse to give up their children to Protestant institutions; to institutions, where Protestant dogmas and practices are enforced upon them; and where they are compelled to study books and listen to addresses in which the religion of their fathers is reviled? We pressed the inquiry further, and asked: Whether it was wise and statesman-like to introduce a system of compulsion, where the rights of conscience are concerned? Where the faith of Catholic parents is outraged by forcing Catholic children into Protestant asylums? Whether peace and contentment in the community are likely to be the result of such a system?' This was the line of argument addressed to the Legislature, which, against violent opposition, granted our charter.

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:

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