The history of Catholic America is, in many ways, an Irish story, with immigrant congregations and their descendants putting their stamp on many churches across the country.
“It was the Irish who made the Church grow,” said Michael McCormack, National Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American Catholic fraternity, noting the early anti-Catholicism of America’s British colonies.
Christopher Shannon, a Christendom College history professor, said the Irish were “the most powerful ethnic group in the Catholic Church” in the U.S. during a wave of mass migrations from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century.
“They were disproportionately represented among the clergy, and especially over-represented among the episcopacy,” Shannon told CNA. “By the mid-nineteenth century, Irish clergy had taken the lead in church building to serve the immigrant populations of the industrial cities of the East Coast and the Midwest.”
“Except for churches founded explicitly by non-Irish groups seeking to maintain their distinct ethnic traditions, every church in the immigrant city was a little Irish,” he continued. “The great cathedrals of these cities—the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, and of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City—were most certainly Irish-built.”
McCormack, a Long Island resident, also cited the Irish role in raising New York City’s famous cathedral named for Ireland’s patron saint.
“They weren’t very rich, they settled in the poorest part of the city, but their pennies built St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” he said.
For Shannon, Old St. Patrick’s Church on West Adams Street in Chicago is “an example of one of the most Irish churches in America.” For his part, McCormack invoked the work of Irish-born frontierswoman and gold prospector Nellie Cashman, who helped build churches from Tombstone, Ariz. to Anchorage, Alaska.
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