"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why So Many Churches in the First Place?

I began this blog in April of last year.  In November, I decided that I would publish on a weekly basis.  I had my articles on urban history pretty much outlined in my mind, but they were only going to be about every third post.  I was less confident about the current subjects I would tackle, realizing that I would need recent events to provide relevant topics, and I had no idea what those would be in the future.  I needn’t have worried.  Day to day events in the Schuylkill Valley have provided the subjects for so many posts that I am now stressed about the accumulating backlog.  I have added to that stress by bumping those stories for this week’s subject, from very recent news.

The news?  Another closure of Catholic churches in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  The Archdiocese just announced which churches will be closed and their parishes subsumed into already existing ones.  The effect was widespread, but the towns along the Schuylkill Valley were hit particularly hard.  Bridgeport will lose its only remaining two Catholic churches and become part of Sacred Heart Parish in Swedesburg, Upper Merion.  Conshohocken will also lose two churches, and West Conshohocken will lose the only one it has.

The announcement evoked waves of both shock and nostalgia, the latter with good reason.  The closings really should come as a surprise to no one who is aware of the Catholic Church’s downward regional membership trend, not to mention the increased secularization of society in general.

As I read through the many comments lamenting the loss and evoking the memories of these churches, I came across one on Facebook by an individual (who shall remain nameless) about the situation in Bridgeport that I much admire, and quote it here:

All of those churches were built by immigrants; why haven’t they attracted any of the new immigrants to Bridgeport area?  We should always have been a welcoming church and not exclude people because of their ethnic background.  There is no reason that a town as small as Bridgeport should have separate Catholic churches.”

The writer is quite correct about the origins of the churches, and his remarks exemplify the modern ecumenical approach to religion.  Unfortunately, the existence of the many churches themselves (not to mention those that have closed already) testifies that religion in American history has not been quite so accepting of differences as many would proclaim today.

Not only were the Schuylkill Valley Catholic churches built by immigrants, but the story behind their construction is a microcosm of American ethnic and religious history itself.  It’s an all-American tale, with ethnic prejudice and nativism (they are not the same thing) playing the lead roles, ably supported by religious animosity and racism.

Let’s put the religious animosity thing in the background first.  The earliest settlers in Southeastern Pennsylvania were a diverse lot, but they shared two things in common: they were from northern or western Europe, and they were Protestant.  Mind you, they were rather fractured themselves along ethnic and religious lines, and they would endure the decline of their churches also, but theirs is not our story today.

The Protestant descendants of these early European immigrants had pretty much settled in and assumed the reins of local control under the new Republic when they were confronted by the first of what would be repeated migrations of strange people quite literally coming up the Schuylkill.  They actually came up the railroad (which came up the Schuylkill Valley), as far as it had reached, then got off and went to work building its route from then on.  They were the Irish.  They were considered close to sub-human; they were dirty, brawling alcoholics, who often faced the sign “dogs and Irishmen need not apply” when looking for work.  They were consigned to the poorest parts of town and exploited in every conceivable way.  Worst of all, they were Catholic.  As they began to accumulate in the nascent industrial towns, they upset the traditional control of the region's Protestants.

Both unwelcome in Protestant churches and possessing absolutely no desire to worship there anyway, once enough Irish had accumulated in a community, they organized and built their own church.  Most of the Irish settled downriver; they quickly came to dominate the Conshohockens, and played a large part in the growth of Norristown and Bridgeport, but their numbers and influence was less farther up the river.  St. Matthew’s Church in Conshohocken was the town’s first, organized in 1851 by its Irish residents.  West Conshohocken’s early residents could use St. Matthew’s, and it wasn’t until 1888 that enough Catholics had settled on the right bank of the river for St. Gertrude’s Church to appear.  They were Irish.  The presence of St. Patrick’s in Norristown just across the river also delayed Bridgeport’s Catholics building a church.  St. Augustine’s was Bridgeport’s first Catholic church, established by its Irish residents in 1892.

Each town on the lower Schuylkill River thus already possessed a Catholic Church when the next wave of immigrants began to flood our shores, some of who also came up the Schuylkill Valley on the railroad.  They were greater in number, and they hailed from Europe, but from southern and eastern Europe, not western and northern, and most of them were also Catholic.  This is a great oversimplification, as this group of immigrants possessed a great variety of religious doctrines and different homelands, but it will suffice to make my point.

So what happened?  Did the Irish, remembering how badly they had been treated, resolve to treat these new fellow-religionists better?  Of course not; if anything, they treated the new immigrants worse, although the later generations of the Protestant elite did contribute their part, just as their ancestors had done to the Irish.  Ethnicity trumped religion; an Italian Catholic or a Polish Catholic was not welcome in an Irish Catholic church, period.  So, the Italians and the Poles and all the others did the best they could until they accumulated enough of themselves to build their own church.  In Conshohocken, Polish Catholics established St. Mary’s Church in 1905, while Italians established Saints Cosmas and Damian Church in 1926.  Bridgeport’s Italians also opened Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in 1926.

See the pattern?  An Irish Catholic church is the first to be established, which then offers the back of its hand to later arrivals, because, although they are Catholics, they are “different.”  Italians, Poles, and the others were routinely not welcomed in Irish churches, but, in truth, would rather worship and celebrate with their own peoples regardless.  They wasted little time and less effort trying to join existing churches, and set about establishing their own.  Ethnic prejudice and nativism are why there were so many churches in these immigrant-built towns. 

Amid all of this, keep in the back of your mind that Racism thing; as the repeated waves of immigration populated the Schuylkill Valley, regardless of one’s opinions about Catholics (or Protestants), or about this or that European ethnicity, all could—and did—combine in despising black people the most and treating them the worst.  It’s an American tradition.

To bring things back to the present, I ask this question:  What do the Bridgeport and Conshohocken churches mentioned in the paragraphs above have in common?  Answer: They are all being closed by the Archdiocese in this current contraction.  They have been in the crosshairs of history for some time now, and their demise long forseen.  The flow of immigrants dried up beginning in the 1920s, courtesy of the U.S. government.  But the churches still thrived, at least until after the Second World War.  Within each municipality, ethnicity continued to be the most often employed means of self-identification.  However as the era of mass communications and that of mass mobility merged, the local ethnic churches lost their centrality as ethnic identity exerted a lesser pull with each succeeding generation.  They young moved away, leaving the borough congregations to age and wither.  A yearly festival would bring many back to eat, enjoy and reminisce, but the sustaining attendance of family groups inexorably decreased, and once in a while wasn’t enough.

One final point concerning Bridgeport: the Facebook poster I quoted asked why the Bridgeport area has not been attracting any of the new immigrants.  In fact, it has, and not too there many are happy about it.  I am speaking of Hispanics, another of the many historical spillovers from Norristown to Bridgeport. As a historian I find this fascinating, and I’m not even going to make any comments about history repeating itself.

Bridgeport and the Conshohockens find themselves at a turning point in history (I’ve made this point about Bridgeport before).  Their ethnic churches made them the communities they were, and the ethnic churches are all but gone, as is the local focus the churches provided.  Current trends differ greatly between Bridgeport and the Conshohockens, but they have this in common: the old community ties that generations developed and could point to with pride—those that defined the communities themselves—are disappearing.  What will take their place?