The Catholic Historical Review 89.1 (2003) 60-84
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Catholic Greenwich Village:
Ethnic Geography and Religious Identity in New York City, 1880-1930
Thomas J. Shelley
Greenwich Village is a neighborhood of diagonal streets and narrow alleys on the lower West Side of Manhattan. Tourists find it an unexpected contrast to Manhattan's rigid grid of north-south avenues and cross-town streets. The area is so different from the rest of the city that even seasoned New Yorkers will admit that a walk through Greenwich Village can be a disorienting experience. Until the morning of September 11, 2001, confused visitors would often look up at the twin towers of the World Trade Center to regain a sense of direction. The population of the Village has long been as distinctive as its topography. Until late in the nineteenth century Greenwich Village remained the stoutly nativist "American Ward" in a city teeming with immigrants. In the early twentieth century it became world-famous as the Bohemia of America. More recently it has been the home of a thriving gay community. 1
For a period of about fifty years, from 1880 to 1930, Greenwich Village was also a vibrant Catholic neighborhood. There were a dozen churches and chapels with their attendant institutions located either in the Village proper or immediately adjacent to it caring for at least seven different ethnic groups. In many respects Catholic Greenwich Village was a microcosm of the big-city American Catholicism of that era. For that reason it is a researcher's delight today. The compact area and well-defined [End Page 60] character of Greenwich Village in those years make it possible for the historian to trace the complicated interplay among the different Catholic ethnic groups that lived there, and between each of them and the local Irish-American ecclesiastical power structure. Such an analysis yields some fascinating insights into the grassroots strengths and weaknesses of the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States at a time when ethnic, urban-centered Catholicism was reaching the apogee of its influence in America.
Greenwich Village was once a real village, a northern suburb of New York City to which the residents of the city fled during periodic outbreaks of cholera. As early as 1822, however, an English visitor noted that, "though once a separate town, [it] now forms part of the city." Nonetheless, for many years thereafter Greenwich Village still preserved its distinctive identity. Amid the tenement districts of lower Manhattan it remained a middle-class enclave with a predominantly native-born white Protestant population. As late as 1893 a rather dyspeptic observer commented favorably on the "humanity of a better sort" who inhabited Greenwich Village in contrast to the inhabitants of the lower East Side of Manhattan, "where even the bad smells have foreign names." 2
By that date, however, Greenwich Village was already in the process of a major social transformation as the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants from adjacent neighborhoods accelerated the flight of middle-class Protestant residents. In 1902 a prominent social worker stated without hesitation that most of the people were now Catholic. The anonymous writer of the WPA's New York City Guide commented condescendingly that by 1910 "the American Ward had become Ward 9, a foreign ward . . . its people faithful followers of the Roman Catholic Church and of Tammany." By the 1920's Greenwich Village was overwhelmingly Catholic and remained such until the deterioration of the neighborhood, and then its subsequent gentrification initiated still another social transformation that sent many middle-class Catholic families scurrying to the outer boroughs of the city. 3 [End Page 61]
The Irish Village
Fully half of the twelve Catholic churches in and around Greenwich Village had predominantly Irish congregations. Far and away the most important of them was St. Joseph's Church, located at the corner of 6th Avenue and Washington Place in the heart of Greenwich Village. Founded in 1829, St. Joseph's was the Mother Church of the Catholics in Greenwich Village and the...