By Dr. Will Kurtz, author of Excommunicated from the Union
In conducting my research into the effect of the U.S. Civil War on the American Catholic Church, I quickly realized that what little scholarship that had been written on the subject had focused mainly on the Irish. When Civil War historians looked at Catholics during this period, they did so primarily from the lens of ethnicity first. Dr. Susannah Ural’s The Harp and the Eagle (2006) and Dr. David T. Gleeson’s The Green and the Gray (2013) are two excellent resources for learning about Irish American Catholicism during the war in the North and South respectively.
This focus on Irish is understandable given that they made up the largest percentage of lay Catholics during this period. According to historian Patrick Carey, approximately 63% of all Catholic Americans were Irish by 1860.[i] The Irish increasingly consolidated their control over the church over the post-war years of the 19th and early twentieth century. Given their predominance among the laity, the Irish-born archbishop of New York John Hughes’s reputation as the U.S. church’s unofficial leader, the fame of the Union’s Irish Brigade, Irish immigrants’ role in the infamous New York City Draft Riots, and the apparent difficulty in unearthing other sources about non-Irish Catholics, it is understandable that the Irish experience of the war has for essentially been understood to represent that of the entire U.S. Catholic Church.
But, as I stress in Excommunicated from the Union, the Irish were one among many groups in the church at the time. Both German-speaking Catholics like Milwaukee’s bishop, John Henni, and those of non-Irish, often Anglo-Saxon ancestry such as the famed convert and editor, Orestes A. Brownson, played very important roles during this period. There were also a small number of Spanish and French speaking Catholics, living in the West, along the Mississippi, or on the Gulf Coast, and an even tinier number of African-American Catholics in such places as New Orleans and Baltimore as well. My book, by integrating many of these non-Irish groups back into U.S. Catholic history at this time, seeks to paint a more representative picture of a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain its unity in an era of religious and political discord.
One useful way to demonstrate the diversity of the church at this time is to look at the hierarchy. To illustrate this, I created an online map by uploading a spreadsheet to an easy to use Google program called My Maps. The map, based on the approximate location of each bishop’s cathedral in 1861, uses national flags to show the nationality of each bishop in every diocese or vicariate at the start of the Civil War.[ii] That most of the U.S. church’s forty-seven dioceses and vicariates during the Civil War were located in the North and Midwest should not surprise anyone. It may be surprising, however, to learn that in fact that American-born bishops comprised the largest nationality within the hierarchy. To be sure, some of these men were of Irish-descent and the second largest number of bishops were born in Ireland. But French-born or -speaking bishops (10 and 12 respectively) were almost as numerous as their Irish counterparts. Thus French-born Catholics were in a position to play a significant role in shaping the church’s response to the Civil War, one that was out of all proportion to their actual representation among the laity.
Also surprising is that there were only four German-speaking bishops in the hierarchy at this time. Given how Germans were one of the three largest ethnic groups in the mid-19th century church, their lack of visible representation in positions of leadership may help explain why German Catholics are so understudied during this period. It also provides some context to post-war efforts by Peter Paul Cahensly and other German Catholics, who felt the Irish were not attentive enough to their needs as non-English speakers, to petition the Vatican for their own hierarchy in the U.S.
My map contains additional information about birthplace, native language, and wartime regional affiliation for those who are interested. While doing research to map the bishops on websites such as newadvent.org’s Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) or catholic-hierarchy.com’s bishops and dioceses database only took me a few hours to do, this kind of mapping project on a more ambitious scale, perhaps one at the parish level, is one that might reveal even more interesting trends about ethnic diversity within the church during the 19th century. Digital mapping and visualizations are great ways to illustrate and understand better U.S. Catholic history. By hosting such projects online on open access websites, they might also provide new ways of more effectively reaching and communicating our work to other scholars and the larger public as well.
[i] Carey also states that by at least 1866, “the greatest number of clergy were from Ireland.” Carey, Patrick W. Catholics in America: A History (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 30, 34.
[ii] For general information and statistics about the U.S. Catholic Church, consult the The Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Laity’s Directory (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1861). The Directory, unfortunately, is not error free. For example, it miscounts the number of dioceses in the United States and forgot to include the newly-established Vicariate of Marysville in California.
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