The National Catholic Review
Kathleen Sprows Cummings

I have just reviewed the evaluations for my American Catholic history course and, once again, many students cited our “field trip” across Notre Dame’s campus to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart as the highlight of the semester. They had listened with rapt attention as Peter Rocca, C.S.C., the rector of the basilica, narrated the stories embedded in the stained-glass windows, explained the provenance of the treasures that adorn the sacristy and side altars, and described the various architectural changes that have transformed the church since its construction more than a century ago.

But our basilica tour is more than a merry outing for my students. The building and its contents illuminate, far more brilliantly than my lectures do, a host of topics and themes central to the history of the American church: the French missionary influence on U.S. Catholicism, Marian devotion, church architecture, the cult of the saints and much more. While I would like to take credit for this pedagogical stroke of genius, it all belongs to James O’Toole. In 2004 O’Toole published a reflection on teaching American Catholic studies in which he shared a number of his innovative teaching techniques, among them a guided tour of the church of St. Ignatius of Loyola on the campus of Boston College. Not long after reading that essay, I was dialing Father Rocca, arranging a similar adventure for my own students. I have since shamelessly adopted other O’Toole methods, including another perennial student favorite, a visit to the campus archives, where we view scapulars, Mass kits and objects of Catholic material culture that even the most devout students of this generation have rarely seen.

The Faithful, O’Toole’s history of the American Catholic laity, contains the same elements that inspired me to follow his lead in the classroom. He relies on a wide range of source material, writes in vivid detail and, above all, pays a great deal of attention to religious practice and ritual. It is this last that distinguishes The Faithful from previously published histories of American Catholicism. Elsewhere, O’Toole has written that “concentrating on questions of organizational structure and dynamics, both internal and external, might be suitable for understanding the history of General Motors, but it hardly seemed appropriate for the very different thing that was the nation’s largest religious denomination.” He is certainly not the first to write Catholic history from the perspective of the people in the pews. But it is true that his narrative eschews, to a much greater extent than other surveys, expositions of ideological or political conflict among the church hierarchy. Instead, he frames his book in a manner designed to capture the myriad ways in which ordinary American Catholics have lived, prayed and practiced their faith.

O’Toole introduces each of his historical periods by describing a typical lay Catholic. Roger Hanly, for example, left Ireland for the American colonies in 1770, and eventually settled with his wife and six children in Bristol, Me. Finding themselves in a “Priestless Church,” the Hanlys relied on prayer books, private worship and gatherings with other Catholic neighbors to sustain their faith during the long stretches between the visits of itinerant priests. Catholics in this period, a small fraction of the American population, enjoyed considerable leeway in expectations about devotional behavior and about their adherence to church law and, while the scrupulous fretted about “habits of negligence,” wise leaders understood that the acute shortage of clergy and the exigencies of life on the frontier demanded flexibility.

James C. McDonald of Beaufort, S.C., was a medical doctor who lived in “The Church of the Democratic Republic.” The bishop of South Carolina (John England—although O’Toole, presumably in the spirit of focusing on the laity, does not name him) had drafted a constitution for his diocese modeled on the American political system. A delegate to the first diocesan convention in Charleston in 1823, McDonald was elected president of the House of the Laity, a body that oversaw nonspiritual matters of church governance in the diocese (spiritual affairs were left to the House of Clergy). McDonald and other Catholics had no problem understanding themselves as both loyal citizens of the republic and as faithful members of the church. In subsequent decades, however, these identities would increasingly come into conflict, as the laity and the clergy competed for authority and as non-Catholic Americans grew more suspicious of Catholics’ allegiance to the pope.

The question of American Catholic identity was even more complex for Catholics of “The Immigrant Church.” Anna Hurban, a Slovakian-born woman from Cleveland, founded the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Union in 1892. Within a decade, the union had 84 local affiliates, opened an orphanage, ran schools to preserve Slovakian language and culture and published its own newspaper. By the time Hurban died in 1928, the club had 65,000 members. Hurban’s life spanned a period of astonishing growth in the church’s infrastructure. In 1880 Detroit had 15 Catholic parishes; by 1925 it had 89. The number of Catholic schools expanded at a similar rate, as did social service organizations, many of which were staffed by women religious, a population that increased dramatically in this period. Priests were also abundant, and the worship and daily life of Catholics centered on the parish, where religious bonds often reinforced ethnic ones.

Unlike Hanly, McDonald and Hurban, O’Toole’s typical Catholics in the 20th century are recognizable to most contemporary Catholics. Dorothy Day represents “The Church of Catholic Action,” and Pat and Patty Crowley collectively embody “The Church of Vatican II.” In his treatment of these periods, too, O’Toole strives to convey how ordinary Catholics lived, both by synthesizing an impressive amount of published scholarship, and by peppering the text with his own original research. Here again, O’Toole’s study is distinguished by his attentiveness to devotional life. He describes—in far more compelling detail than I have seen elsewhere—exactly what changes the Second Vatican Council brought to the liturgy and to sacramental practice (on the latter, O’Toole is the acknowledged expert on the history of confession, and his discussion of its decline in the wake of Vatican II is characteristically thoughtful and informative).

My major reservation about the book concerns O’Toole’s decision to limit his discussion of the 18th century to Anglo-America. Recent histories of the Ursulines in New Orleans, Spanish missions in the Southwest and other studies of early American Catholicism beyond the northeastern part of the continent have yielded ample, rich material on the laity that O’Toole could have used to expand the geographical parameters of his study in the decades before and after the American Revolution. This would have had the added advantage of bringing his study full circle. For his final historical period, “The Church in the Twenty-First Century,” O’Toole settles on “Maria,” who will be born in Los Angeles circa 2012, as the typical lay Catholic, whose church will be characterized by unprecedented ethnic diversity.

That reservation aside, there is no question that with the publication of this book I find myself in even greater debt to O’Toole, as the material in The Faithful will surely find its way into my classroom. But it is the Catholic faithful more broadly who stand to gain the most insight from reading this book. O’Toole describes history as “our own individual memory; without it, we would be lost, uncertain of who we are.” History, he argues, is particularly relevant in times of crisis; and for an American Catholic Church still reeling from the sexual-abuse scandal, facing institutional contraction for the first time in its history, and seeking to accommodate demographic shifts and unprecedented diversity of practice, the past is prologue to a future yet unknown. “A new age of the Church in America has begun,” O’Toole observes, “and what form the Church will take, what combination of old and new, will be up to its people to decide.” He offers the past as “the standard against which to measure the many possible futures,” and for that reason, as well as many others, his rendition of that past deserves a wide readership.

Kathleen Cummings is associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, Ind.