Catholics in the cities
As a lapsed Catholic, one of the few times I think about the faith I was raised in is during the holidays. Catholic churches and schools were a critical part of the lives of my ancestors on both sides of family, their influence gradually dwindling from my grandparents, through my parents, and to me as they moved away from their heavily German-American parish in Buffalo, New York, to the suburbs. Their experience was not unique.
John T. McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (1993) makes the case that racial unrest in many inner cities was essentially a clash between Black migrants from the South and Catholic communities that had been established by waves of immigrants.
Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, Catholic churches were established throughout northern cities and clergy encouraged parishioners to invest in their neighborhoods. Catholics gave money to build not only churches, but also rectories where priests lived, convents to house nuns, parochial schools, and hospitals. Catholics identified themselves by their parish and participated in social activities, clubs, and sports centered around the church, not to mention mass on Sundays. When a prominent Catholic monseigneur died in Buffalo in 1941, 30,000 people filed past the body. Our Lady of Victory parish in Lackawanna, an industrial suburb near Buffalo, was the city’s second largest employer after Bethlehem Steel.
Parishes were often organized by nationality, separating immigrant groups into German, Irish, Italian, and Polish neighborhoods, and even those for Black people in the earlier years of the 20th century, although Black Americans often objected to being segregated. Catholics were encouraged to buy their own homes in the parish, ensuring stability and funding for parish institutions, like local Catholic schools.
However, as McGreevey notes, as second and third generation Americans from immigrant groups began to prosper, especially in the post-WWIII years, many moved to the suburbs, leaving room for opportunistic real estate agents to scare those left behind into selling their property cheaply by stoking fears about Black people moving in. This “block busting” practice allowed them to profit by reselling to Black buyers at higher prices, saddling them with large mortgages. Those who couldn’t afford to buy, or were denied mortgages through red lining practices—where banks refused mortgages to qualified Black applicants in certain neighborhoods—had to rent from landlords who may not have been motivated to maintain the properties, resulting in slums. Some Blacks were herded into public housing projects built by federal and local officials in heavily Catholic neighborhoods.
White Catholics, including parish priests, frequently resisted integration of their neighborhoods. In the heart of the heavily Irish South Buffalo, two prominent priests led rallies to protest a proposed housing project. Monsignor John Nash of Holy Family Church said: “The Okell Street project threatens to destroy the work of 40 years to build up the South Park district. The right to protect our homes is as sacred as the right to defend our lives.” (pg. 73)
White Catholic mobs threatened Black neighbors and beat them, set fire to their houses, and threw bricks through windows. Even Black Catholics were treated with daily disdain—spit upon, called names. At Mass, White churchgoers would often vacate a pew if a Black person sat down beside them.
White Catholics defended their actions by arguing that no one cared about working-class people who were watching their home values—their only insurance against old age—rapidly decline. But they blamed their Black working-class neighbors for the decline rather than the true culprits: opportunistic (White) real estate agents, (White) slumlords, and (White) politicians.
Ironically, throughout this time, the Catholic leadership, all the way up to the Pope, was moving toward promoting racial tolerance and inclusion as key Catholic tenets. Liberal Catholics worked for interracial harmony and priests and nuns joined freedom marches and protests during the Civil Rights era. But they ultimately failed to instill the message in laypeople. White Catholics fled the inner cities, leaving deteriorating homes, schools, and churches for Black Americans to resurrect. Some succeeded, many did not.
So, who exactly was to blame for the decline of our inner cities?
Main image: Sisters of Charity Hospital was the first hospital in the city of Buffalo. It was founded in 1848 by John Timon, the first Catholic Bishop of Buffalo. https://buffaloah.com/a/stlou/14/sisters.html
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.