Sunday, June 04, 2006

"The Powerhouse"

Today's NYTimes contains a very pleasant surprise of a piece: a reflection in "The City" section on the halcyon days of the secular clout enjoyed by the church in New York, (appropriately) focusing on the twin titans of "Dagger John" Hughes -- its first archbishop, the builder of "new" St Patrick's Cathedral -- and Francis Cardinal Spellman, the kingpin of US Catholicism over four decades.

Great photo topping the article, too.

Today, the Archdiocese of New York, which stretches from Staten Island to Orange County (Brooklyn and Queens form a separate diocese) and includes 2.5 million Catholics, faces financial strains as well as a critical shortage of priests. But its troubles are an indirect reminder of the significant influence the church wielded for more than a century, a period bookended by two legendary bishops.

Although the archdiocese is almost 200 years old, it was shaped by the huge influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. In the single decade from 1845 to 1855, one million Irish immigrants entered the Port of New York. By 1865, according to the estimate of Jay P. Dolan, a church historian, New York's Catholics were "almost one half of the city's population."...

Personal relationships were at the heart of the arrangement. Political figures, from precinct captains up to the top boss, were often loyal parishioners. A visit by the parish priest to the local district leader was part of a de facto affirmative action program that could yield a job or promotion, or keep a son or brother out of jail. Tammany, in turn, could be relied on to support the use of public funds for Catholic charitable institutions and to oppose legislation harmful to church interests.
Now more than ever, the importance of knowing and keeping a constant curiosity about the history behind what we see today can't be overstated. It never ceases to amaze how even the recent past is ignored, forgotten and, worst of all, discounted -- both as guide and cautionary tale.

There is much to learn from the lessons of our heritage and those who fail to heed them are, indeed, doomed to repeat their mistakes.