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Posted July 8, 2005

International Priests in American History

Taken from the Study:
International Priests:
New Ministers in the Catholic Church in the United States
Authors: Dean R. Hoge and Aniedi Okure, O.P.

This is a partial report from the study. The study will be published in its entirety by the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, MN. The study is a co-venture between the National Federation of Priests Councils, The Life Cycle Institute and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops

The Catholic Church in the United States has always had international priests serving its parishes, and in most of its history it depended on them. Until the end of the nineteenth century, foreign priests — mainly from Ireland, France, and German — dominated the Church in America.

In the pre-revolutionary period, Catholics were few in number in the colonies, and priests were even fewer. Religious priests dominated, mainly Jesuits. In the 1780s, after the Revolutionary War was over, there were only twenty-one priests in the entire nation — nineteen in Maryland and two in Pennsylvania (Perko, 1989:99). In 1791, French Sulpicians, a society of diocesan priests, began arriving, and they proved to be the most substantial and important of all. They worked in parishes and in missions, and they established the first seminary in the new nation, St. Mary in Baltimore, Maryland.

The early Catholic communities in the U.S. produced very few native-born priests. The American bishops needed to look to Europe, and they did so at every chance. They wrote their friends and confreres in Europe, and they sent recruiters to European seminaries to try to attract new priests to come to the United States. They met with some success, since French and Irish seminaries had a surplus of men. For instance, in 1835, Simon Brute, the first bishop of St. Louis, traveled to France, and in 1836 returned with eleven priests, two deacons, two subdeacons, three men in minor orders, and two other ecclesiastical students (Ellis, 1971:17). In 1791, at the first church synod, held in Baltimore, 80 percent of the clergy present were foreign-born. French priests were the most common, and for the most part, the French priests were refugees from the French Revolution who came to the United States seeking asylum. These men, and indeed most of the European priests, tended to be suspicious of republican tendencies in America and preferred to reproduce the European church here. (Dolan, 1985:118-120).

Not all of the immigrant priests in those earlier years were ministerial successes. Some were inspiring contributors to church growth, but others were simply troublemakers. The letters of early American bishops are filled with complaints about the priests from Europe. There were two complaints. First, was that the European priests preferred a more hierarchical, less republican-style church than the Americans, and they could not understand the American separation of church and state. The second was that many of the foreign-born priests were unable to get along with their religious superior or bishop. Some were “free lance” clerics who came to America under the authority of nobody. The American bishops complained to their European colleagues that due to the shortage they were forced to accept almost any priest, but they found out that many priests who came here were misfits and malcontents back in their home countries. The archbishop of Baltimore, in an 1819 letter to the Holy See, stated that out of the ten Irish priests who came to his diocese, eight had turned out badly. He went on to say that most of the scandals of the day could be attributed to Irish priests in Philadelphia, Norfolk, Richmond, and Charleston. European bishops sometimes viewed America as a kind of Australia for wayward priests, a dumping ground for clergy of the lowest quality. This tendency, as we might expect, did not endear them to the bishops in America.

In the Southwest, the problem of shortage of priests was the same as in the East. A few priests came in from Mexico, but many more were needed, and French priests were invited. This solved one problem but brought another — tensions arose between the fairly relaxed Hispanic Catholic laity and the more religiously rigorous French clergy.

Regardless of these problems, a great man foreign priests became bishops in the United States. In the second plenary council at Baltimore in 1866, thirty of the forty-seven bishops present were foreign-born.

Dolan describes the dominance of foreign-born priests in the nineteenth century:

Throughout the nineteenth century, the vast majority of these [priest] recruits were foreign-born; the few studies of the clergy that have been done illustrate this very clearly. In Minnesota, for example, nine out of ten priests, between 1844 and 1880, were foreigners; in the next thirty years the ratio dropped off to two out of three, but this was still a very high percentage . . . In St. Louis a similar pattern prevailed at the turn of the century, with over half of the clergy being immigrants. Reflecting the nationality of the people, the vast majority of these priests, at least 70 percent in Minnesota, were Irish and Germans.

The Coming of the Irish

The large Irish immigration beginning in the 1830s brought with it a wave of Irish priests. Ireland in the nineteenth century had an abundance of priests, and the bishops directed thousands of seminary graduates to go into mission work – above all, in the United States, but also in Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia. By the end of the nineteenth century, Irish priests were the most common foreign-born priests in the U.S. About 4,000 came between 1840 and the present. Most were diocesan, not religious, and most served in the South and West. Americans dubbed them the “F.B.I.’s,” the Foreign Born Irish. Florida and California had large concentrations. William Smith cites statistics:

By the mid-1800s, 59 percent of the priests in the diocese of New York were Irish-born and at the beginning of the twentieth century, 62 percent of the bishops were Irish-American, more than half of them being Irish-born. By 1900 two-thirds of the diocesan priests in the diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, were foreign-born with more than one-quarter of them being Irish. One-third of the pastors in the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1963 were born and educated in Ireland, while during the 1940s and 1950s, 80 percent of the priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were Irish-born.

American bishops requested men from Ireland. Irish priests were readily available, since the bishops in Ireland had far more seminarians than they could support, and they simply assigned many young men to minister in the United States. Smith tells how this worked:

Since most diocese had more priests than they needed, only a select number of candidates were chosen to serve in the home missions. Those who did not score high enough on the examination either had to join a religious order or mission society, or find a bishop from a diocese abroad to sponsor them.

Not all like ministering outside their homeland, and some returned to Ireland as quickly as they could. Others grew fond of their adopted land and stayed their entire lives. America, after all, offered more opportunities and more possibilities of parish growth. Also priests in America were promoted to become pastors much more quickly than in Ireland. American bishops had mixed reviews of the Irish priests, in general considering them inferior to the earlier French-born men.

The concern over the quality of Irish-born priests continued well into the middle of the nineteenth century. There was a common belief in Ireland and the United States that priests recruited for service in America were second rate in comparison to those being groomed for the home missions and for the Irish episcopate. (Smith, p.49; see Ellis, 1971:120-1).

The Irish priests were directed to serve all ethnic groups in America, and soon they were presiding over parishes of Bohemians, Slovaks, and Portuguese. They acquired a reputation of being more rigorous and disciplined than priests from Italy, Spain, or Portugal. The laity from these nations found Irish priests cold and puritanical, and they preferred their own priests whenever they could find one (Morris, 1997:129).

Monsignor William Barry, an Irish priest in south Florida in the 1920s, 19303, and 1940s, was an example of how Irish priests helped each other.

For over thirty years he held a card game for Irish priests on Sunday evenings. It has been noted that some clergy believed the Irish priests were clannish and that this hindered ties with native-born clergy. If the Irish priests were indeed clannish this is just one example of maintaining a subcultural identity. Sharing activities on free days, annual visits t Ireland, and annual seminary reunions held in the United States were other means by which these priests reinforced their Irish identity. (Smith, p. 69).

Smith’s Survey of Irish Priests

William Smith in 1997 carried out an important survey of Irish-born and Irish-educated diocesan priests serving in the United States. He estimated that about 1,250 Irish-born priests were serving in the United States at that time. He collected names of alumni of Irish seminaries who were in the United States, and 402 of them returned his questionnaire. Their mean age was 62.

Why had they come to the United States? Forty-three percent said they were assigned by their bishops to come here, while 57 percent had volunteered for service in an American diocese, usually because they had not been chosen by an Irish bishop for sponsorship in seminary (Smith, 2004:75). This means that virtually all had been forced to leave Ireland or to seek support from outside Ireland for their seminary training.

Were they happy with the training they had received in Ireland? For the most part yes, but not entirely, since their training did not prepare them well for American culture or for their pastoral roles.

Have they been treated differently by American Catholics because they are from Ireland? Fifty-one percent said yes:

The priests were treated differently by non-Catholics and by other priests, particularly American-born priests. Time and time again in their answers the Irish priests mentioned the animosity held by American-born priests toward them.

Here are typical comments by Smith’s respondents:

My opinion is that most parishioners in American parishes, at least in the Southeastern dioceses, would prefer an Irish priest to an American priest. I suspect the reason for it is that the Irish are more pastoral, less bureaucratic, more personal, less rational/academic. Of course it’s quite chic in academe and among American women religious to be anti-Irish, but not so among ordinary parishioners. Being thus favored has its disadvantages however. Some Irish priests play the “Irish ticket” to a shameful degree, substituting charm for substance.

The people in parishes have been wonderful. Our biggest difficulty in the beginning was with native clergy. They seemed to resent us, particularly if we got a promotion.

Sometimes Americans of Irish descent may favor Irish-born priests, but generally speaking I do not think I am treated differently.

The parishioners have been wonderful to me over the past forty-three years, no matter what nationality they happen to be. Unfortunately and sadly the same cannot be said about some native priests. We were “outsiders” when we came. This feeling is still present among some of the present generation.

The Irish priests were overwhelmingly happy in their priesthood. Smith asked them about problems they were facing, and the main problems were overwork, loneliness, celibacy, an the shortage of clergy.

Smith states that the often-heard description of F.B.I.’s in the United States — that they are ultra-conservative, is unwarranted by the facts. Yes, they have been conservative on personal moral issues such as sex and marriage, but not on everything. Also the view that Irish priests came to America reluctantly is unwarranted; the vast majority of the priests came willingly, with a strong sense of mission and hope for new possibilities here. True, many were homesick and many found American ways difficult to accept. But the majority served with devotion, energy, and openness.

As a postscript to this depiction of Irish-born priests, we should note that the heroic twentieth-century Irish exportation of priests has ended. It is finished. Vocations dropped precipitously in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, and today the seminaries in Ireland no longer produce even enough priests for the Irish Church. All but two of the seminaries in Ireland have closed due to lack of students. In 1997 there were only 119 seminarians in Ireland preparing for the priesthood. The collapse of vocations in such a short time period signals to us that underlying social changes had been taking place for several decades earlier and were only awaiting political shifts to take effect.

The Mid-Twentieth Century

The chronic American priest shortage eased in the 1940s and 1950s. American seminaries by this time were well-developed and filled with students. But American Catholics are misled ifthey take the immediate pre-Vatican years of the fifties as representing all past history. No. The fifties were unusual. They can be seen as a final golden age of the immigrant church, full of vigor and hope, well-supplied with native-born seminarians. The longer-term American picture, by contrast, was one of shortage of American seminarians and endless efforts to recruit priests from Europe. The ratios of priests to laypersons from 1900 until today are shown in Table 1.1. American Catholicism had more priests in service, relative to laity, in 1940 and 1950 than at any time before or since, and the shortage of priests has heightened greatly since 1980. Older American Catholics today remember the 1940s and 1950s and compare today with the blessed time of priests on all sides.

Ratio of Priests to Laypeople, 1900-2003

Year Number of Priests Millions of Catholics Ratio of Priests to Laity