There have been 32 American presidents since 1850, when the diocese of New York was elevated to arch-status, along with 40 Empire State governors and 12 popes, but just 10 archbishops of New York. George J. Marlin and Brad Miner point this out in their new book exploring that history, Sons of St. Patrick. We talk about some of what they found and what it means. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What archival deep diving! What motivated the labor?
George Marlin: Having had the privilege of being a friend of the four most recent archbishops of New York, and having worked with Cardinal Cooke and Cardinal O’Connor fighting New York’s culture wars, I came to understand the impact archbishops can have on New York’s body politic and its 9,000,000 citizens.
This was reinforced when, serving as executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, I called on Cardinal O’Connor to help comfort the families of the victims of the TWA Flight 800 crash in July 1996. The spiritual connection the cardinal made with the family members was the most moving moment of that tragic period.
My experiences convinced me it was time for a history to be written about the remarkable priests who have led New York’s archdiocese. My longtime friend Brad Miner agreed, and after Cardinal Dolan gave us permission to utilize the archdiocesan archives, Brad and I began collaborating on Sons of Saint Patrick.
Lopez: What’s so special about New York?
Marlin: Saint John Paul II said it best when he declared New York City is “the capital of the world.”
Because New York is the media headquarters of the nation, the New York archbishop is the most prominent Catholic spokesperson in the nation addressing the issues of war, poverty, education, and anti-Catholicism, and stating Church teaching clearly and confronting those who oppose that teaching.
Lopez: Why does the history matter? Why take the time? Where is it instructive?
Brad Miner: Tempting as it is to give a pat answer to this, evoking Santayana and others, the simplest reply is that history is just so darned interesting. The stories of Catholics in New York and their ten archbishops prove the point. History reminds us that people in the past pretty much went through most of what we’re going through now. You wouldn’t want to enter into a campaign for public funding of parochial schools without know why John Joseph Hughes, New York’s first archbishop, tried hard to achieve it, why he came so close to achieving it, and why he failed to achieve it.
Lopez: How Patrick (Irish) is it anymore? How influential? What’s the best of that past to recover/protect?
Marlin: Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that the Irish had a genius for organization. In the 19th century, the Irish, who were the largest ethnic bloc in New York City, drafted the blueprints for the political machines, and—being Roman Catholic—they were spontaneous advocates of subsidiarity. They built from the bottom up: neighborhoods were organized block by block, through parishes, clubhouses, saloons, pool halls, and candy stores. This was the system that provided and dispensed patronage, contracts, and franchises to the faithful. They helped with day-to-day problems, from garbage removal to road, park, sewage and bathhouse maintenance. It was these Irish leaders who brought turkey to the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and represented the political clubhouse at weddings, baptisms and funerals.
What we should learn from them is that family and neighborhood must always come first.
Lopez: Al Smith gets his name in the news annually, and especially during presidential-election years because of the charity dinners the archbishop hosts. What’s most underappreciated about him, what should continue to be known? Are things like the Al Smith Dinner and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade throwbacks that should go? Confusing, even, in an already confusing culture?
Marlin: Al Smith, a product of the Lower East Side’s St. James’s Parish, was in my judgment New York’s greatest governor. He worked tirelessly to enhance the quality of life of ethnic residents in his beloved neighborhoods. As the first Catholic candidate for president, he was the “great commoner of the urban masses” who fought valiantly to turn back the tide of religious prejudice. He lost the election, but the outpouring of his inner-city supporters started a new shift of political power in the United States. Republican analyst Kevin Phillips observed that “even before the great depression, Smith sparked a revolt of the urban ethnic groups which foreshadowed the makeup of the New Deal coalition.”
The Al Smith Dinner may be a throwback, but so what? As Cardinal Dolan put it, “the dinner is an occasion of conversation, [an] evening of friendship, civility and patriotism to help those in need . . . ”
Miner: New York’s annual Irish celebrations, the Saint Paddy’s Day Parade and the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick Dinner, are here to stay. Excesses notwithstanding, they’re great events and lots of fun. But . . . the parade, which New York’s Supreme Court ruled in 1993 was a Catholic religious procession, is no longer a Catholic event. That ’93 decision is what allowed the Ancient Order of Hibernians to exclude openly gay groups from marching, but once the Hibernians turned over the parade to another group, which has allowed homosexual marchers to march as homosexuals, it’s clear the connection to the Catholic faith has been severed.
Lopez: What’s the greatest accomplishment of the Archdiocese of New York with the most lasting impact?
Marlin: The lasting impact of the Roman Catholic Church in New York was best expressed by the late Michael Novak: “The Church taught the immigrants to work hard, to obey the law, to respect their leaders, and to concentrate on private, familial relationships.”
Lopez: What’s the best example of learning from setbacks?
Miner: Probably the emergence of a viable Catholic-school system under Hughes. He almost got New York City’s Protestant mandarins to pony up money for a separate Catholic school system. He had Governor William Seward on his side, and had he been willing to be a little less confrontational on the matter, a little more willing to make compromises, he might well have established the principle that education of all children, being in the public interest, should mean funding parochial as well as public schools. But when that effort failed, he set about building up the Catholic alternative that remains viable to this day.
Lopez: If the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, what should Catholic Christians especially be meditating on about the martyr missionaries and others — like Isaac Jogues, who is on the bronze doors of St. Patrick’s — of New York State and Canada?
Miner: An aspect of Catholic life in New York has always been courage. Jogues, a Jesuit from France, came down from Canada in the 1640s and into the world of the Mohawks in what today is upstate New York. His intention was to proclaim the Good News. The Mohawks were impressed until they weren’t. They tortured him and would have killed him if the Dutch hadn’t rescued him. He returned to France and could have stayed, but he came back to New York once he recovered his health. The Mohawks called him “Indomitable.” Then they killed him; martyred him. If anyone is timid about proclaiming Christ in modern-day Manhattan, they might recall what a real missionary is like.
Lopez: What’s the St. Patrick’s Day message of the book?
Miner: Don’t forget that marching and green hats and green beer and good whisky are poor symbols for the saga of the Irish in America. And it’s not just that most of the folks wearing “Kiss me I’m Irish” buttons on March 17 wouldn’t have lasted an hour in Five Points in 1840. It’s that the sacrifices Irish (and Italian and German and so on) Catholic immigrants made over more than two centuries deserves more than the evocation of the worst sort of caricature of Irish heritage.
[Read more from this interview on Crux today.]
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.