Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 1 - Review
Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia.
By Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. xxx, 688pp. $34.95.
Virginians will welcome Commonwealth Catholicism as an important addition to
recent scholarship that depicts the South's complex religious heritage. In an account
reaching from the sixteenth century to the 1970s, University of Virginia professor
Gerald P. Fogarty, S. J. cautions that his research was limited by the paucity of records left by laypeople, priests, and
even bishops. Nonetheless, he provides a volume rich in information and insights.
During Virginia's early history, it "was
not a hospitable place for Catholics" (p. 1), Fogarty observes. Catholic leaders struggled to overcome a host of problems. In the
colonial period Catholics endured waves of discriminatory laws and gained some relief only after the passage of the Virginia
Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. With Catholic communities composed mostly of French and Irish immigrants, the Diocese of
Richmond was created in 1820. Including most of the modem states of Virginia and West Virginia, the diocese remained
understaffed and underfunded and relied upon itinerant missionary priests to reach its scattered population. Virginia laws
that prohibited the incorporation of church property added to financial woes. Priests had to cope with fractious, independent
congregations whose democratic attitudes conveyed little deference for religious authorities. Catholics encountered episodic
outbursts of animosity culminating in the Know-Nothing political movement of the 1850s. Conscious of being a religious minority,
Catholics felt the need to tread softly and thereby accommodate the dominant Protestant culture. Still, before the Civil
War, the diocese established St. Peter's Cathedral in Richmond as well as schools, an orphan asylum, St. Vincent's Hospital in
Norfolk, and sturdy churches from Portsmouth to Lynchburg to Martinsburg.
Virginia Catholics rallied behind the
Confederacy, and priests served as chaplains, an important role in a state filled with Catholic soldiers from the Gulf Coast.
Focusing on the Daughters of Charity, Fogarty concludes that "the hospital work of the sisters on both sides of the fray did
much to change the image of the Church in the United States, particularly in the South" (p. 176). After the war Catholic laymen
ascended socially and politically, and "Richmond became a stepping-stone to national prominence for its bishops" (p.
189). Those same leaders distinguished themselves by building schools and churches and expanding mission work in rural
areas and among African Americans.
Thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Fortune Ryan, the early twentieth
century brought the construction of the impressive Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond. The new century also brought a
trickle of European immigrants and a torrent of anti-Catholicism, evident in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and in the
presidential election campaign of 1928. The 1920s did witness the birth of Richmond's Catholic Charities, an organization that
initiated modern social work and offered new professional opportunities for women. Although the Great Depression "strained
the limited resources of the diocese" (p. 435), World War II and the postwar period transformed it by precipitating an influx of
Catholics. By the 1950s earlier efforts to reach out to African Americans gave way to emphatic words and deeds in support of
racial justice. Bishop Peter Ireton desegregated the diocese's Catholic schools just before the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1960s Bishop John J. Russell promoted ecumenism as well as civil rights.
By the 1970s the growth of suburban Catholicism provided a new challenge: how to minister to a "well-educated, middleclass
population with little corporate memory of, much less identification with, a historical past" (p. 516).
Fogarty offers a much-needed,
comprehensive history of Virginia Catholicism. His thorough and detailed presentation deserves applause, but his array of characters,
organizations, and churches may overwhelm a few readers. Some scholars will fault him for being excessively charitable in characterizing
the state's ultra-conservative economic and political elite of the late nineteenth century. Yet he otherwise presents multifaceted portraits
of clergy and laity and skillfully connects developments in Virginia with the rest of the nation and the Roman Catholic Church.
This handsome volume includes sixteen pages of photographs that permit readers to connect names, faces, and places.
Virginia historians and Catholics will value Commonwealth Catholicism as an essential resource for understanding the state's past.
Samuel C. Shepherd, Jr.
Centenary College of Louisiana