Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Bishops began to forget they were Apostles

The Archbishop's Residence built by Cardinal
McCloskey in the 1880's. 
The Civil War was a watershed in American history in many ways.  While so many on both sides were devastated by loss, and the South in particular was hit with economic ruin, fortunes were made and lost as speculators and government contracts offered opportunity for the canny and the enterprising—and especially the canny—to profit from this national tragedy.  The War—and the social and economic revolution that accompanied it—changed the way Americans thought about wealth.  The Calvinist Boston merchant or the cautious Virginia planter may have been wealthy, but there were bounds to their wealth.  Whether your fortune rested on the tobacco and cotton crops or on the safe return of a China clipper you always had to hedge your bets, but the industrial revolution that followed the War created a new kind of wealth—an obscene sort of wealth—that would create the magnificent Fifth Avenue mansions known as “Millionaire’s Row” as well as the palatial summer residences of Newport in Rhode Island.  The Fricks, the Vanderbilts, the Dukes, the Whitneys, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Goulds, the Morgans and scores of others made fortunes never before seen this side of the Atlantic in steel, oil, banking, shipping, coal, and newsprint.  It was not always done honestly as the Crédit Moblier scandal of 1872 proved.  It was always done on the backs of armies of poorly salaried workers—usually immigrants—whose poverty stood in vast contrast to the exorbitant wealth of their employers.  For the greater part, these “Robber Barons” came from old well-established families that had been in America from before the Revolution and who had the capital with which to generate more capital.  However, you also had a few men like Andrew Carnegie whose incredible talent impelled him from a penniless immigrant to one of the richest men in America. 
At the same time these new fortunes were being made, Americans began looking more and more to Europe for cultural inspiration.  John Adams, or even Francophiles like Jefferson and Franklin, would have been chagrined by the wholesale sell-out of Americana to European effeteness.  Marble House in New Port and the Vanderbilt Petite Chateau in New York—along with dozens of other palaces of the Robber Barrons were built in French or Italianate style.  The Metropolitan Opera was founded in 1880 to bring European artists to America to sing in Italian or German or French.  La crème de la crème of America’s wealthiest families purchased their private boxes in the splendid new opera house.  In 1887 the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York undertook to build a magnificent cathedral—larger than any other house of worship this side of the Atlantic—and in the European Gothic style.  Six years later, Prominent Episcopalians influenced Congress to issue a charter for a “National Cathedral” in Washington DC—again, built in the English Gothic style.  Wealthy Episcopalian congregations established choir-schools to provide the choristers for English-style choirs of men and boys.  The scions of the wealthy American families went abroad on their “Grand-tours” to soak in France and Italy and whatever culture they might pick up along the way.  Their grandmamas made their annual trips to Paris to buy their frocks and to Florence and Rome to snap up antiquities for their various chateaus.
It was in this atmosphere that changes took place in the Catholic Church in the United States.  Catholics weren’t part of this cultural metastasis of the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons.  There were wealthy Catholics to be sure—though few (if any) to match the wealth of the Vanderbilts or the Roosevelts and their ilk.)  Often the Catholic nouveaux riches came to their more temperate fortunes through ways no less reprehensible than the Robber Barons, but ways considered vulgar by the Protestant Pharisees.  It was often politics—with its graft and greed—or breweries and distilleries that created Catholic wealth.  Catholics couldn’t crack the securely Protestant (mostly Episcopalian and Presbyterian) “400” and so created a shadow society of their own.  If they weren’t invited to the balls and soirees of American aristocracy, nothing stopped them from acquiring mansions of their own or buying a box at the opera. They carefully studied and then aped the habits of Protestant upper crust.  And bishops like John England or John Neumann with their threadbare clothes and simple lifestyle would make Catholicism a hindrance to the dream of social acceptance in a world with the likes of Episcopal Bishops Henry Codman Potter or Philips Brooks and their impeccably blue blood.
A key step forward was the elevation of John McCloskey to the cardinalate in 1875.  Roman protocol demanded a certain style for a Prince of the Church.  He had to have his own carriage and could not travel in public transportation.  (The maintenance of a carriage was a huge expense as it required the horses and the grooms as well as a driver.)  He was required to have a home sufficient for his servants and staff as well as for such ceremonial as a throne room should the Pope stop by.   (It was unlikely the Pope would drop in on a New York Cardinal, but still he had to be ready and the throne room was there at least until the time of Cardinal Cooke.  It may still be there for all I know as I am not a frequent guest in the house.)  In addition to his clerical staff—secretary, chaplain, etc., a Cardinal was required to have a valet and several “gentlemen”—butler and footmen. Then of course there were cooks, maids, laundress, etc.  In the established Roman palaces or the various arch-episcopal palaces such as Paris or Prague or Venice that usually housed Cardinal arch-bishops, all this was taken for granted.  But McCloskey had to build a residence for himself—which he did—adjoining his Cathedral.  Compared to the Arch-episcopal palace of Vienna or Prague or Krakow, it is a modest cottage, but by New York standards it was, while not grand like the Frick or Whitney or Carnegie homes—quite respectable.  Actually, McCloskey was no grand prelate and given the expectations laid on him, kept things fairly discreet.  But Catholics seeking to crack the Protestant Establishment in Boston or Chicago or Philadelphia saw advantage to their bishops adopting the princely trappings of European prelates.  And the American elite whose only Catholic acquaintance might be their parlor maid or their carriage driver, took note of prelates who lived and dressed in the European princely mode.  They may not have been ready to entertain such a prelate in their homes but it gave the Church a certain amount of social recognition if not respect.  We will see that some of these princely prelates—William O’Connell comes to mind—only proved you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but others such as Gibbons of Baltimore or Wood of Philadelphia or Williams of Boston had discreet and genteel personalities.   Silk purses or sows ears, however, the pattern was set and day of poor bishops was over. 


  1. Ahem, the plural of nouveau riche is nouveaux riches.

  2. thanks for the correction, I must admit that I can get sloppy on plurals in other languages. I almost used alumni in a recent post when I meant alumnus--spell check caught it or I would have heard from you then.