I had thought I move on to the subject of the establishment of an Apostolic Delegation but I forgot that we first have to deal with “The German Question,” most notably with the events surrounding the “Abbelen Memorial” to the Roman Congregation of Propaganda Fide.
Peter Abbelen (1843-1917) was a German born priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who on behalf of the German speaking clergy of the Milwaukee, Cincinatti, and Saint Louis Archdioceses submitted a petition to the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome to establish and protect the rights of German priests and congregations in the United States. Propagada Fide (literally: for the spread of the faith), known today as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is the bureau in the Papal Curia that is responsible for work in missionary countries; as such it oversaw the Church in the United States until 1908. At the same time that Propaganda Fide had jurisdictional oversight of the American Church, other Roman dicasteries, most notably the Secretariat of State, also had authority and this enabled the Bishops and others to play one congregation off against another from time to time as we shall see in blogs over the next week or so.
The problem began in St. Louis where Archbishop Peter Kenrick established the policy that within the boundaries of any one territorial parish there could be only one canonical parish and any other church or quasi-parish did not carry with it the rights and privileges of a canonical parish. Now that sounds confusing but let me present an example illustrating what he meant. A parish is not simply a church, it is a territory served by that church and with a pastor appointed to minister to the Catholics in that territory and administer the property of that parish. So a parish is a territory. Now let us say that within that territory a specific group of Catholics wish to establish a second church for their own purposes. For example: a group of several hundred German immigrant families wish to establish a German church within the boundaries of an already existing English-language parish, or overlapping the boundaries of several English-language parishes, they can—with the bishop’s permission build a church but that church is not a parish. It is a secondary chapel, or a chapel-of-ease, to the parish in whose territory the church itself stands. By the letter of the law—the canons of the Council of Trent (1545-1562) that policy is correct; but that policy was not drawn up with the American situation of islands of alien immigrant communities surrounded by a native population who speak a different language and have a different culture. And while the German quasi-parishes or national churches functioned well-enough in Saint Louis, their rectors did not have the full rights under canon law as the (English speaking) rectors of the established territorial parishes. Most important, the rector of an established parish could not be removed at will by the bishop. But the English speaking rector (pastor) of the parish in which the German parish stood was technically the pastor of those German parishioners. He could block the construction of a school in which the children would be taught in German. He could set requirements for first communion and confirmation for English and German children alike. He had rights over the administration of baptism and marriages. In other words, the German speaking priests would always be second- class citizens unless they were named pastor of a territorial parish—all of which were English speaking—and their parishioners would always be at the whim of the policies of English-speaking pastors. As I said, in Saint Louis where the Vicar General, Monsignor Muehlsiepen was a German, the day to day pastoral practicalities worked out, but the German pastors were still second-class citizens as they could be moved at whim and also, not being irremovable rectors they lacked rights of being consulted for diocesan policies and for the nomination of bishops. Cincinatti and Milwaukee also had large German immigrant populations with their own churches and their clergy were also in this ambiguous position.
Abbelen went to Rome with a petition of the German clergy from those three Archdioceses asking Rome to give ethnic parishes the same rights as territorial parishes. Abbelen’s petition also requested that the Holy See mandate the appointment of a German speaking Vicar General for the German faithful in those dioceses where neither the bishop nor his Vicar General spoke German. And thirdly, his petition sought that the Holy See require that the adult children of those parishioners in German ethnic parishes have the consent of the pastor of the German parish before they could change their membership to the territorial parish. This last point would, of course, keep the German faithful in the German parish for two, three, and more generations, guaranteeing the survival of the German parishes.
Beneath Abbelen’s petition—and it should be remembered that while he presented it, there was a large body of German clergy (including Archbishop Heiss and Bishop Katzer) behind it—was a certain ethnocentricism, almost racism. That is not to say that it didn’t have merit, but rather it saw the world in categories of German/non-German. It needs to be kept in mind that Germans were the largest non-English speaking immigrant group but they were not the only ones. Lithuanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Belgians, French, and especially Italians and Poles were facing the same difficulties, but Abbelen’s petition concerned only the German immigrant churches. Moreover the petition called all English speakers “Irish,” which neglected completely the ethnic complexity of English-speaking American Catholicism. Several German-born bishops, notably Richter of Grand Rapids and Rademacher of Nashville, did not support it the Abbelen memorial. Archbishop Ireland and Bishop Keane were in Rome and obtained a copy of the petition, Kean calling it “A more villainous tissue of misstatements I have seldom read.” Gibbons collected the opinions of the other bishops and sent them on to Rome, none supporting Abbelen. Belgian-born Bishop Camillus Maes of Covington KY wrote that the petition sent to Rome by “German Prelates” was “nothing less than an insult to the hierarchy of the United States.” Martin Marty, the Swiss-born Benedictine bishop of the Dakotas likewise saw this as a “secret” of the German bishops and clergy, while Katzer of Green Bay (and later Milwaukee) wrote Propaganda Fide defending and endorsing the petition.
When the German Catholics of the United States planned a national gathering, a Katholikentag for Cincinnati in 1888, they requested a Papal Blessing from Leo XIII, but while the blessing was yet on its way, Denis O’Connel, Rector of the North American College, and Roman agent for the liberal bishops, managed to have it withdrawn. This was an egregious insult to the Germans no matter how tense the ethnic divide was. In the end, Rome decided the various questions more or less in favor of the German petition. Yes, two parishes could exist in the same territory. Yes, the pastors of the German parishes could be and have the rights of Irremovable rectors. And the children of German parents should be in the German parish until their legal majority. Rome did not give the German pastors the right to refuse adult parishioners the right to transfer to an English language parish. But the battle was not over. A German layman and a German Cardinal would stir up the pot again. the image today is the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Milwaukee