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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

How Catholics Built a Better Church and Society
January 4, 2015

What do Regis Philbin, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and I have in common? We’re among the 76 people profiled in historian Pat McNamara’s book “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude, and the Works.” I’m not in that illustrious company because of anything I’ve done, but rather because McNamara appreciates what The Christophers mean to Catholic culture—and culture in general.

In “New York Catholics,” he serves as a historian who makes the past relevant by sharing the timeless stories of real people whose devotion to their faith led them to serve the poor, fight racism, battle anti-Catholicism, and build up the Church in America.

The first figure McNamara highlights is Sir Thomas Dongan, a member of Ireland’s Catholic aristocracy who England’s Charles II appointed as governor of New York in 1682. Dongan went on to battle the bias against Catholics that was present in the city. Actually, “bias” is too mild a word. McNamara quotes Thomas Shelley, author of the history of the New York Archdiocese, as writing, “Protestant colonists may not have been especially fervent churchgoers, and they were themselves divided into rival denominations. Yet there was one common element in their religious beliefs that united them, and that was a detestation of Roman Catholicism.”

During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” McNamara explained, “Dongan created a charter of liberties in 1683, which said that anyone who belongs to a Christian denomination has complete freedom. This is revolutionary. Dongan was the first to do it in a Northern colony. And the charter was later amended to say all persons of any religion whatsoever [had freedom too], because New York had a Jewish community.”

McNamara noted that some Catholic authors argue that Dongan’s charter influenced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and simply promoted greater tolerance in American life. That didn’t happen quickly or easily, though. Into the 1840s and 50s, there were still want ads running in the newspaper that stated, “Neither Irish nor Catholic need apply.” Members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party were elected to office throughout the country—and there were even anti-Catholic riots that broke out in Brooklyn. So how did Catholics finally become accepted in their adopted home?

McNamara said, “Eventually the Catholics just wore them down. They just kept coming! They kept building churches and schools…and the hospital system and old age homes…and they started these orphanages, where they welcomed children of all denomination or none, of all races, of all backgrounds. [At the time], you had denomination-specific orphanages, like Protestant-friendly orphanages and Catholic orphanages. But one of the great pioneers of Catholic childcare was a priest named John Drumgoole, who I talk about in the book. And John Drumgoole said, ‘I’ll take any kid from any religion, background, race.’ And he did. He created Mount Loretto in Staten Island, which at the time was the largest childcare institution in the United States.”

McNamara believes that Catholics helped “the least of these” because it was a gospel mandate, but also because “the Catholic immigrants who came over were ‘the least.’ First the Irish, the Italians, the many and the various groups that came after them. They were poor immigrants, and they weren’t always treated very well. But rather than sticking it to the people above them, what they did was help the people who came after them.”

I’ll share more of McNamara’s stories in my next column.


For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, PRACTICING PATIENCE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: