Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Origins of Radical Catholicism II: The Father McGlynn Story, part I

Jeremiah Cummings was succeeded as pastor of Saint Stephen’s Parish in New York City by his hand-picked assistant pastor, Father Edward McGlynn (1837-1900) who is one of my favorite characters in the history of American Catholicism.  McGlynn was one of ten children of a young widow who had been left—fortunately—in comfortable circumstances by her Irish immigrant husband.  Archbishop John Hughes was a family friend and oversaw the education of the McGlynn children and when Edward expressed a desire to become a priest, he was sent to study in Rome.  McGlynn initially studied at the Urban College of the Propaganda, but when the Pontifical North American College opened in 1858 he transferred there earning doctorates in Theology and Philosophy.  He finished and was ordained a priest in 1860, returning to New York and becoming assistant priest to the progressive Reverend Thomas Farrell at Saint Joseph’s Church in Greenwich  Village.    Farrell was an abolitionist and had a particular concern for the social welfare of African Americans.  Normally a priest with McGlynn’s background would be expected to have a quick rise in the hierarchy and it would not have been unreasonable for McGlynn to foresee a career for himself as a bishop, perhaps even Archbishop of his native New York, but the influence of Farrell set him off on a different track where he became far too radicalized to ever advance in Church politics, even in a dawning era where a liberal party would emerge in the American hierarchy. 
McGlynn viewed pastoral work very widely—not just the narrow sacramental and educational ministries common to priests of the day, but concern for the social welfare of parishioners and non-parishioners as well—and he threw himself into parochial work to the degree that his health broke after only two years. He was given a recuperation period in Europe but he had drawn the attention of Father Cummings who,  asked the Archbishop McGlynn as his associate.  Cummings died and McGlynn succeeded him as pastor.    Under the tutelage of Farrell and Cummings McGlynn had developed some very strong ideas.   There was a circle of New York diocesan priests who were opposed to the “Europeanizing” of the Catholic Church in the United States.  They—like prominent converts Orestes Brownson and Issac Hecker—believed that the American political and social tradition was compatible with Catholicism and did not need to be abandoned for European models that would appear strange, and even dangerous, in the American Republic.  McGlynn was a strong advocate of Public School education and would not build a parochial school at St. Stephen’s.  Instead he became very interested in providing poor children with good vocational training.  Although Saint Stephen’s was a very fashionable Church drawing membership from the at the time small pool of well-to-do Catholics, McGlynn devoted both personal and parochial resources to ministries to the immigrant poor.  It was probably here where he became involved in the Irish Land league.   
The Irish Land League was an organized attempt in Ireland to relieve the Irish peasantry from the burden of the often outrageous rents they had to pay the landlords—mostly British and Irish Protestant Ascendency—for the tenant farms they held.  This league was an eminently respectable organization benefitting the Irish Catholic peasantry but with the leadership coming primarily from the faction of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendency that favored Irish independence.   It effectiveness was a huge threat to the Irish Status-Quo and the Irish bishops, always ready to accommodate their British Masters, opposed it, although much of the on-the-ground organization was provided by the country parish priests.  Incidentally, while the principal targets were the absentee Protestant British landlords, the first landlord to be hit by a rent strike was a wealthy Roman Catholic priest, Canon Burke of Knock (where, I presume coincidentally, the Blessed Virgin and assorted other heavenly types were allegedly appearing just about this time.  They were, by the way, appearing to the peasantry, not the Landlord-priest).  The Land league was strongly supported by Irish immigrant Catholics in the United States, Canada, and Australia and McGlynn became very involved in the cause.  The Cardinal MacCabe of Dublin and the Irish bishops, opposed to the league, communicated to their American counterparts that they should do their part to keep priests and the faithful from adding to the agitation.  To be fair, this was a very complex time in Irish history as not all the movements were dedicated to peaceful objectives and indeee d it was in the midst of this that the English chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Cavendish and the permanent Undersecretary, Thomas Henry Burke, were murdered at the viceroy’s lodge in Phoenix Park.  McGlynn however was not to be stopped in his publicly advocating support for the Irish tenant farmers and as he travelled around the North East speaking on behalf of the Land League he drew the wrath of a number of bishops.  More to come.    
The image today is Saint Stephen's Church (now known as Our Lady of the Scapular and Saint Stephen's) in New York City,

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