Vincentians Then and Now – Dodging Rocks With Immigrants

by | Apr 12, 2019 | Evangelization, Vincentian Family

From literally dodging rocks to now being welcomed!

The following quote describes the situations faced by immigrants and the first Vincentians in the U.S. who tried to serve them in the 1840’s.

In his later years, Fr. Domenec, CM would relate the difficulties he encountered in his attempt to establish St. Vincent’s parish [in Philadelphia]. While some people claimed it was foolishness to build a Catholic church in the area, others tried to prevent him from achieving his work, including the Know-Nothing party, a group who was opposed to immigrants, especially Roman Catholics. On September 2, 1849, the day that the cornerstone was to be placed, Fr. Domenec and Bishop Kenrick were surrounded by seminarians and friends, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who were eager for St. Vincent’s to be built. Amongst the crowd, however, were people who tried to interrupt the ceremony by jeering and throwing rocks.

Church historians report similar incidents.

Archbishop John Hughes, his New York predecessor known for his fierce defense of Irish immigrants in the 19th century, including issuing threats against nativists who attacked church property and people. Hughes drew criticism from many leaders of his time, including poet Walt Whitman, who called Hughes a “mitred hypocrite” because he supported immigrant “dregs of foreign filth.”

Is history repeating itself today?

Joe Boland, the vice president of mission for Catholic Extension reminds us of three things.

  1. Building walls is not a new idea

What is ironic about our current public debate is that exactly 100 years ago the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. In those days Italians were arriving by the millions and were seen as diluting the Anglo-Saxon purity of the U.S. Just as past generations developed ways to try to keep many of our Catholic ancestors out of this country, a new wave of immigration prevention measures is emerging today, driven by the same fear that our cultural purity, our values and national identity are at risk of being overwhelmed by immigrants.

  1. Immigrants stealing our elections is a recycled fear

In 1840s the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party (stoked fears) that Irish and German immigrants were running away with the ballot box, a charge that sounds eerily familiar to all of us today.

On Feb. 12, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, chancellor of Catholic Extension, stated: “In days not so long ago, our ancestors were victimized as anti-immigrant fears were whipped up, giving rise to quota laws, church burnings, beatings and voting restrictions. Our crime? Adhering to a religion that was foreign and thought to be seditious, a threat to the nation. In hard economic times, we were often made into scapegoats and suffered discrimination because of where we came from and what we believed.”

  1. Irish immigrants became good citizens

In spite of the Know-Nothing nativist party’s insistence otherwise, Catholic immigrants and their descendants ultimately proved to be good citizens of this nation.

What has changed?

A recent article in Vincentian Heritage sums it up:

“European Catholic immigrants built a sizable infrastructure of parishes, schools, and hospitals that tended to serve populations who did not have access to existing resources, infrastructure, or capital. Over the last century, however, changing demographics and geographical redistribution have made Catholic populations in the United States far more diverse in terms of ethnic and cultural identity.”

That infrastructure is gone. Society and the way we communicate has radically changed. Many people are alienated from the church both on the left and the right. (See earlier article on this website about the rise of the “Religious “nones” )

These changes call for new methods for addressing these problems.  This is what Pope Benedict referred to as a “new evangelization.”

Questions facing those wishing to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor Today

  • Am I awake to both the same challenges faced by Evengelizers of the poor yesterday… and the adaptations required by changes that have occurred since then?
  • If I, whether as a single person or with vows marital or religious, wish to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor today and tomorrow, what changes are being called for?