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  • The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York, 1808-2008, and: Catholics in New York: Society, Culture and Politics 1808-1946
  • Raymond J. Kupke
The Bicentennial History of the Archdiocese of New York, 1808–2008. By Thomas J. Shelley. (Strasbourg: Éditions du Signe. 2007. Pp. 623. $65.00. ISBN 978-2-746-81945-0.)
Catholics in New York: Society, Culture and Politics 1808–1946. Edited by Terry Golway.(New York: Fordham University Press and the Museum of the City of New York. 2008. Pp. 206. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-823-22904-8.)

Ostensibly, the showpiece event for the bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York was the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York City in April 2008, when the Holy Father celebrated both the bicentenary of the archdiocese at Yankee Stadium, as well as the third anniversary of his own election as Supreme Pontiff at St. Patrick's Cathedral. But, in long-range terms, perhaps the most significant element of the New York bicentennial celebration was the publication of what the archdiocese has lacked for so long—a comprehensive, scholarly, readable history. The Strasbourg-based Éditions du Signe has been mining American Catholic history for over a decade, producing dozens of diocesan histories of the coffee-table variety, heavy on the visuals, with at least one photograph of every parish in the diocese. But make no mistake: The New York volume is not a typical coffee-table book.

There is good reason why authors have shied away from writing a New York archdiocesan history: There is too much Catholic history in New York. This single diocese includes in its story the first American-born saint, the first American citizen saint, the only canonized American diocesan priest, the first American cardinal, the first Catholic presidential candidate, and the first papal visit to the United States. Its significant figures and institutions include the United Nations, Ellis Island, Catholic universities and colleges, Maryknoll, America magazine, Isaac Hecker, Dorothy Day, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Volumes have been written about each of these, but painting all of them into a single canvas has proved too daunting for most authors. Thomas J. Shelley—a priest of the archdiocese, professor of historical theology at Fordham, and formerly professor of church history at the archdiocesan seminary at Dunwoodie, Yonkers—has a long reputation as a respected historian of the local church. Shelley is an excellent writer with a broad knowledge of the historical sources for his subject. In twenty well-developed chapters, Shelley takes the reader from the earliest appearance of French missionaries in New York in the seventeenth century to the triple challenges facing Cardinal Edward Egan's administration in the early days of the twenty-first century: 9/11, the priest sex-abuse crisis, and the parish-realignment initiative. Shelley's handling of the sex-abuse crisis may well become a template for [End Page 173] other diocesan historians seeking an honest yet nonsensational way to cover this aspect of a diocese's history. His treatment of the parish-realignment issue reveals the depth of Shelley's knowledge of his subject, placing the issue within the context of a century-long call for parish reassessment, and balancing it with stories of successful parish resurrections as they adapted to demographic shifts and new populations.

It is something of a tribute to Shelley's skill as a writer and historian that he did not succumb to the temptation of multiple sidebars in the book, but instead deftly wove together the personalities, movements, and currents that have made Catholic New York nationally and internationally known, while at the same time never losing sight of the story taking place in the hundreds of parishes of the archdiocese. In a sense, this is actually a history of the Catholic Church in the United States viewed through the prism of one very vibrant local church.

This five-pound volume is lavishly illustrated, even for an Éditions du Signe book. There are more than 600 photographs and historical illustrations. Published at a time of parish realignment, the photographs of churches about to be closed or demolished may prove particularly valuable. More than twenty well-drawn maps...


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