Week 9: Catholicism and Popular Religion

  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth- Century Urban North. [S.l.]: Univ Of Chicago, 1998.
  • Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Third Edition. 3 edition. New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Orsi, Robert. “The Religious Boundaries of an Inbetween People: Street Feste and the Problem of the Dark-Skinned Other in Italian Harlem, 1920-1990.” American Quarterly 44, no. 3 (September 1, 1992): 313–47.

The readings for this week were directed towards religion and urbanity. In Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North, John McGreevy tracks the connections between “religion, race, and community in the nations northern cities” [] In particular, McGreevy is intent on illustrating the religious nature with which Catholics viewed neighborhood and community. Following these northern cities from WWI put to the 1970s, McGreevy is able to track the urban Catholics changing response to race. Similarly, Robert Orsi, in The Madonna of 115th Street Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, focuses his analysis on East or Italian Harlem in the beginning half of the twentieth century. Orsi’s focus in his study is on the popular religion, as he defines it, in the lives of these immigrant Italian Catholics. In particular, he shows the strong religious expression of the “domus” and the veneration of the Madonna of 115th street.

Both Mcgreevy and Orsi offer a view of Catholicism that is focused on the adherents life outside the church walls. It is a lived religion that is expressed in their day to day actions and in the high importance placed on their community, both geographically and socially. The boundaries of these communities, whether dictated by parish or by the domus, are highly policed as an encroachment on them signified and encroachment on their belief. Both these texts are useful in identifying the ways in which lived religion or as Orsi describes it “religion in the streets” permeated the various facets of their lives. Moving beyond the confines of a church building allows for a deeper analysis of cultural interaction and conflict. For McGreevy, this is the tensions among Catholics by the migration of blacks into northern urban centers while Orsi’s narrates the deeply held domus relations and its conflict with American culture.

The larger institutional church occupies an interesting and precarious position within these two texts. Both authors indicate the tension that exists between the church and aspects of the popular or lived religion of his congregants. Orsi goes further to indicate both the disparate notions of Catholicism among the various ethnic groups in America and specifically that Italians “makes  rather clear distinction between religion and the church and they often view the latter with critical cynicism” [57]. More so than the other texts we have thus read this semester (barring Goldman’s Beyond the Synagogue), the church addressed by Orsi and McGreevy can be seen as the most institutionalized. IN particular with McGreevy’s text, the church struggled to implement the Mystical Body of Christ within the social and everyday life of Catholic adherents. The image of the Catholic Church is less of a top down structure and in some ways almost a grass roots experience. Perhaps that moves too far.

For my own research, McGreevy’s and Orisi’s framework offer an important element in the conversion process. How does one manage their popular or lived religion when moving from one faith to another? Furthermore, what aspects of their prior faith, lived or institutional, gets translated into their new? How much does the institutional role of the Mormon Church in the nineteenth century impact the lived religion and social structures of its adherent. Perhaps the most difficult and important question is in what ways can I access these lived religious experiences?

As somewhat of an aside: I found the focus on home ownership in McGreevy’s text particularly interesting. The concept of parish membership and loyalty as expressed purchasing a home resonates, in part, with Mormonism. I haven’t explored it thoroughly but the geographic manner in which Catholicism establishes its parish is similar to Mormonism (in particular contemporary Mormonism). For Lincoln Mullen’s Data and DH class I have been transcribing statistical data that the LDS church reads at its annual conference in April beginning int eh 1910s. It was interesting to me, and made even more intriguing by McGreevy’s analysis, that the LDS hierarchy maintained a figure on the percentage of Mormon families that owned their home. Additionally, as this percentage was decreasing over time, the President of the Church in 1932 made a statement regarding home ownership rates. He noted “Our records show that in years gone by over 75 per cent of the people owned their own homes. There is a spiritual growth always when people own their own homes. The owning of a home creates a spirit of loyalty to the Church and also, really, to the government” [https://archive.org/stream/conferencereport1932a#page/n5/mode/2up]. McGreevy’s framework has piqued my interest into the motivation and reasoning for this mentality among Mormons.  s a way of grounding yourself within a parish community The institutional church occupies an interesting place in these texts. While McGreevy does include a stronger narrative regarding nuns, priests, and the effects of Vatican II, the institutional Church does not



Week 9: Catholicism and Popular Religion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *