Parish Boundaries

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John T. McGreevy. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 362 ISBN: 0-226-55873-8


Dr. McGreevy’s work is about American Catholicism and race. He claims historians are always looking at race, gender and class and not often enough looking at the important role religion plays in American identity and history. “Religion frequently ends up at the bottom of a list of variables”.p4. Historians look at race in terms of working-class in urban areas without realizing the importance of religion in shaping racial views. Dr. McGreevy looks at urban north race relations in just those terms: how Catholicism affected those relations. Blacks moved into the urban north in droves from 1920 through 1960 from the South. They moved into neighborhoods that were populated by mostly working-class whites. The residents were first and second generation immigrants- Irish, Italian and Slovaks. These neighborhoods had a heavy concentration of Catholics. This was because the parish church was the center of social and cultural activity. Protestants and Jews mainly fled to the suburbs when blacks moved into these cities. However, Catholics had a much stronger identity with their neighborhood and stayed in the city in much greater numbers. They had a stronger sense of community, not only from their ethnic ties, but also their ties to a particular parish. Catholic religious heritage was a stronger influence than class, and gave cohesiveness to the whole neighborhood. The sacramental life of the church, the division of some parishes into “ethnic” parishes, and the church being the center of social life meant the Catholic experience was much more about place than the it was for Protestants. An individual’s ties to his parish were extremely strong prior to Vatican II.

It was this neighborhood cohesiveness, however, that made Catholics resistant to intruders and change. Blacks suffered prejudice and were reviled as strangers to the neighborhoods. This was true even of black Catholics. There were many racial clashes in the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties in urban neighborhoods. Blacks interacted with Catholics in the North more than they did with any other single group. This racism started in part from Catholic neighborhoods trying to keep themselves and their values together. In the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, liberal Church leaders championed the civil rights movement. The Second Vatican Council condemned racism. There was a bitter conflict between the laity and the hierarchy of the Church on this issue.


Dr. McGreevy has done a wonderful job of accurately capturing urban Catholic life in the twentieth-century. He utilizes numerous archives and collections from various parishes and is quite convincing in his portrayal of American Catholicism. The cohesiveness of parish life was quite real for Catholics at least through nineteen-sixty. However, the race issue is much larger than just Catholicism and it is still questionable how big a role religion played. Was ethnicity the real glue in these neighborhoods? Where does class fit in with religion? Catholics may not have fled to the suburbs as quickly as Protestant and Jews because they were Eastern and Southern European first and second-generation immigrant working-class and could not afford to. It may be difficult to separate class from religion in this analysis. Was this racism a result of protecting neighborhoods or would it have been there anyway since the attitude toward non-blacks was very different? It is also difficult to ascertain whether race played a big role in changes in Catholic life in the urban north or did Vatican II and societal changes play a big role. Religion is important certainly, and Dr. McGreevy has done a fine job of showing it is understated, but religion’s place among other factors remains hard to quantify. You could find a lot of reasons for racism without mentioning Catholicism and you could find a lot of reasons for changes in Catholicism without mentioning race.

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