The Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and New York

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVIII (6) start of chapter

Then, if we turn our glance Westward, and rest it for a moment on that most marvellous of all modern cities—Chicago—what do we see? A few years ago and Chicago was not heard of; it had no existence. Since then it has risen literally from the swamp, a city of magical growth, yet of full maturity, perhaps the most extraordinary instance of the energy of a people which the world has ever seen. But yesterday a sprinkling of shanties on the flat shore of Lake-Michigan; to-day one of the most famous centres of industry in the States, and known on every public change in Europe. In this marvellous City of the West, in which progress assumes dimensions almost gigantic —with its grain elevators capable of storing twelve million bushels of grain, and lading the largest ship in little more than an hour—its abattoirs, that each slaughter from 1,000 to 2,000 hogs in a single day—its net-work of railways connecting it with every State in the Union—its tunnel running two miles into the lake, to supply pure water for its inhabitants—its machinery for lifting whole blocks of houses, and building additional stories under them without interfering with the business or the comfort of a tenant!—in this marvellous Chicago, the very embodiment of the spirit of go-aheadism, the Catholic Church is not a whit behindhand. It strives, and with cheering success, to keep pace with a progress almost without example in the world. In the city there are about 20 Catholic churches, for a Catholic population of 60,000, of whom 50,000 are Irish; and other churches, including one of considerable grandeur, are either in course of erection or in active contemplation. It has even now 12,000 Catholic children, of all classes and conditions of life, receiving a sound Catholic teaching in academies and parochial schools. And, a not less significant indication of progress, it is receiving daily within its fold converts of the educated classes of society.

In one church, in the year 1866, the Bishop—a most accomplished gentleman and zealous ecclesiastic—administered Confirmation to 500 persons; and of that number over 100 were converts, principally from the middle and upper classes. I met more than one of these converts; and for intelligence, information, and quiet dignity of manner, I have rarely, if ever, seen their superiors. The building of churches and schools is a visible and tangible evidence of progress, and there is abundant evidence of this kind in Chicago; but conversions, and from the educated and enlightened portion of the community, are evidences more important and more conclusive. Even in Chicago, the centre of unceasing movement and constant change, the majestic conservatism of the Catholic Church, its tranquil serenity in the hour of civil strife, its unbroken unity in the midst of dissension and disorder—is a subject of wonder and admiration; and thoughtful earnest men cannot avoid beholding in it an additional proof of its divine mission.

Happily for the interests of religion, happily for the welfare of its enormous Irish population, New York is now devoting all its energies to the construction of a cathedral which will cost three millions of dollars, and will be the pride and glory of the Irish Catholic heart.(52) The Archbishop, one of the ablest of the Prelates of the American Church, is fully alive to the necessity of providing ample accommodation as well for those who have already come, as for those who are certain to come; and by the close of 1868 the churches of the city of New York will have reached the number of forty. But 'more, more, more!' is the cry one hears on every side; and ere the golden cross flashes from the loftiest pinnacle of the Cathedral of St. Patrick, many new churches will have gathered in new congregations, additional thousands and tens of thousands of worshippers. The progress of the Church in this greatest of American cities is hopeful and cheering in the highest degree, and in no city are institutions of all kinds more numerous or more efficient; but the necessity for further efforts is perhaps more pressing, more urgent, and the field for the display of all the resources of zeal and liberality wider and vaster, than in any city within the circle of the Union. Though there is no little poverty and distress in New York, there is also a rich and powerful Catholic community; and though great things have been done, and are every day in progress, still the Catholics of New York are well aware that they must make, and continue to make large sacrifices, in order to meet a state of things which, while exceptional in its character, is the natural and inevitable result of the position of their city—virtually the gate through which the adventurous of the Old World reach the New. And so long as the stream of European emigration flows into and through New York, so long must the spiritual wants of the Church impose an onerous but necessary burden on the generosity of the faithful. From what I have seen of the pastors and the flock, I have no fear as to the result.

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