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Going their way: A diocese's story

By Clark Booth, 10/25/1998

Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People
By Thomas H. O'Connor
Northeastern University Press. 357 pp. Illustrated. $28.95.
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oston is a town where people have always taken their religion seriously," Thomas O'Connor, professor emeritus of history at Boston College, states at the outset of his lively study of Boston Catholics. Amen to that: You can't begin to understand this town or the region it dominates without a proper appreciation for the force of religion in its public discourse. The struggle with concepts of sin and salvation commenced when the Pilgrims arrived. As the game of choice ever since, it has exceeded in terms of provincial reverence even its byproducts, politics and baseball.

Inevitably, local turf has been bitterly contested by the varying theologies, their proponents fully grasping that with a lock on The Truth comes other advantages. Control of turf motivated the Puritan divines, in all of their monumental intolerance, back when we were all but "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," as Jonathan Edwards was pleased to call us in colonial times. Next to Edwards, who held forth in the Berkshires, the eight Catholic prelates who have led Greater Boston Catholics the last two centuries have been pillars of charm, culture, and compassion.

By O'Connor's own admission, this work is hardly a true history of the archdiocese. At 338 pages, it's too thin for so vast a challenge. The mysteries of the faith, the mandates of the Magisterium, and the doctrinal combat that have spurred controversy over the ages are only casually treated. Rather it is a study of the social, cultural, and political impact the Roman Catholic Church achieved in New England in its astonishing rise from an outlawed cult as late as the Revolution to the region's most powerful institution by World War II.

As late as 1825, when Joseph Fenwick became bishop, there were only eight Roman Catholic churches in all New England. Since earliest times, the few who dared practice their faith openly had been hounded by anti-papist fanatics and nativists. Yet ahead, beginning in the 1830s, were the persecutions of the "Know-Nothings." But with the explosion of Irish immigration, prompted by the potato famine in the late 1840s, came the tide that rolled for a full century, creating an intensely dynamic American subculture complete with a vast infrastructure of churches, schools, hospitals, and other services.

By 1940, the diocese counted more than 1 million Catholics, 375 churches, 158 grammar schools and 67 high schools serving 90,000 pupils, 947 diocesan priests with some 200 more in the seminary pipeline, and 5,469 nuns. Presiding over it all in a triumphalist spirit that O'Connor properly terms "militant" was William O'Connell, Boston's first cardinal. This relentless growth is an amazing story.

The subsequent coda over the last half-century has been unmistakably a time of drift, as it has been for almost all formal religion. Perhaps not surprisingly, the strength of O'Connor's book is in the recounting of church growth and the reveling in its boom years. He seems less sure of his analysis when he deals with contemporary problems: declining church attendance, an aging priesthood, the vocations crisis, clerical scandals, dissent. But then, as he notes, historians do need some distance, and the down-cycle that's ensnared almost all religious enterprises in our times is not yet played out.

"Boston Catholics" is an authorized work. Archdiocesan officials chose O'Connor and granted him total access to their deep archives. But there was no editorial intervention. If his approach is polite and his tone respectful, that's no surprise coming from this South Boston native and loyal son of Boston College. More to the point, O'Connor's fond regard for the role of the church in the evolution of the American experience has been well established in his earlier and acclaimed studies: "The Boston Irish: A Political History," "Civil War Boston," and "South Boston: My Home Town."

O'Connor writes gracefully, has a sharp touch with details and anecdotes, and excels at organization. Those who like to revisit the immigrant saga so profoundly influenced by the fortress church of Roman Catholicism will particularly enjoy it. It's a heroic tale that O'Connor plainly delights in and tells well.

Still, there's room for a little quibbling. O'Connor constructs his tale by stitching together profiles of the eight bishops of the realm -- Cheverus, Fenwick, Fitzpatrick, Williams, O'Connell, Cushing, Medeiros, and Law -- and allowing each to reflect his times and symbolize the passages of his church. It works because all eight have been remarkable characters. From the elegant John Lefebvre de Cheverus, who fled the French Revolution only to face greater hatreds in Boston, through Harvard-bred Bernard Law, who contends with the even more complex challenges of existential relativism and materialism, Boston's bishops have had shared one characteristic: They've all been plenty tough troupers.

And though the book makes good reading, it's no more a history of Boston Catholics than a succession of presidential profiles could be properly termed a history of the American people. The history we have here is almost exclusively seen through the prism of the hierarchy at its pinnacle.

Some will take more serious issue with O'Connor's treatment of Cardinals Cushing and Medeiros. He brings little that's new to the understanding of those men, though he had that opportunity. New ground might have been broken; indeed, should have been, for it could have been a service to the understanding of our own times. But it wasn't. His profile of Richard Cushing is the familiar, intensely sentimental portrayal of the prince of Boston's Irish Catholicism as a colorful, if crusty, "character." If it is the way Cardinal Cushing is invariably portrayed, it remains simplistic.

In the case of Humberto Medeiros, O'Connor does make an effort to grasp the totality of his work, by acknowledging his pastoral leadership, progressive management style, and tough-minded campaign to liquidate the huge debt Cushing had piled up in the capital expansion of his regime. But in the end, he comes to the same old dreary conclusions about Medeiros's makeup and style and, above all, his role in that supreme catharsis, school busing. They are conclusions shaped by an ill-informed media, which always misconstrued his piety as softness, his civility as a sign of equivocation.

The author makes too much of Medeiros's occasional lapses into self-pity and not enough of his determination to prevent Boston's parochial school system from becoming a refuge for white Catholics seeking to escape busing, or his efforts to get his own priests to ride the buses with the children. Such efforts have been lauded by Michael Dukakis, governor at the time, who has said Medeiros kept a bad situation from becoming worse.

For those of us who believe Humberto Medeiros was the most misunderstood person of his times in this town, and a much more complex, tougher, and more courageous man than he's ever been portrayed, it's a disappointment. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that we are not a majority.

"Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People" is a valuable work. It was needed and it is welcome. But there is more that can be said on the subject; a lot more.

Clark Booth, a reporter for WCVB-TV, is a close observer of matters Bostonian, especially sports, politics, and religion.

This story ran on page D8 of the Boston Globe on 11/13/1998.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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