Historians of Catholicism are biased toward events. By most accounts American Catholic history stars the faithful, whether clergy or laity, but it gets its clarity and its momentum from episodes those people experience together. In these narrations, Catholicism in the twentieth-century United States trips from one pregnant happening to another – the celebrations of the immigrant Church give way to a suburban exodus, which gives way in turn to the election of a Catholic president and the upheaval of Vatican II. In America's Church, Thomas A. Tweed unsettles this status quo by demonstrating that physical spaces can also orient Catholic history. His study of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, on the grounds of The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, posits that a single structure – albeit an unusually emblematic one – can act as a “threshold to Catholic America,” granting access to multiple historical moments and Catholic populations simultaneously.
Tweed's focus is the National Shrine's planning, fundraising, and construction, most of which occurred between 1913 and 1959. These decades were also the height of “consolidated” Catholicism in the United States – an era when clergy and laity shared, to an extent unheard of before or since, a single religious outlook on the world. This outlook was characterized by an emphasis on institutional authority [End Page 73] as well as a “triumphalist Americanism” that married patriotism with confidence in the church's influence over the nation. “The evidence suggests there was much more agreement among Catholics,” Tweed writes, “than some contemporaries might imagine” (12). While today critics associate the Shrine with conservative elements in a factional American Church, Tweed argues that during its long construction the structure was a symbol of unified Catholicism. America's Church is therefore a study of bishops and laity together; one that recognizes the success of the former at mediating – through a complex infrastructure of guidance – the latter's engagement with the Shrine and American culture generally. By attending to what the church's leaders and its laity shared in the context of the Shrine, Tweed offers an important corrective to religion scholarship that overvalues lay-clerical difference, and artificially isolates lay religiosity as a sphere that functions apart from clerical purpose.
Tweed gives the influence of Catholic leaders its due without relegating laity to the background. He organizes his chapters around six clerical concerns of the consolidated church: “to build institutions, contest Protestants, mobilize women, engage children, incorporate immigrants, and claim civic space” (15). His objective in them is to show the presence of different people who passed through the Shrine – either “corporally or incorporally”– while it was being built (9). These include ecclesiastics like its founder, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, who secured permission from Pope Pius X to build the Shrine, who oversaw its fundraising, and whose body is interred in its Founder's Chapel. They also include thousands of Catholics who visited the site or sent money to support it. Tweed offers stories of laity who exerted appreciable, if always circumscribed, influence on the Shrine's architectural details. In Chapter Two, for example, he introduces Mary Downs, a child who “achieved some very minor celebrity in Catholic circles” after writing a letter to Shahan to suggest that “every Mary in America” join her in giving money to erect a statue of the Virgin at the Shrine (68). Down's proposal inspired a campaign to fund the building's Mary Memorial Altar. Tweed matches these anecdotes with meticulous “social profiles” of various groups – especially women, children, and immigrants – who engaged the site. Beginning with a list of names compiled from visitor and donor records, he uses census data to construct composite portraits of how Shrine supporters lived. The book's appendices include information on more than 250 individuals, detailing everything from their birthplaces to their occupations to the values of their homes. Tweed uses this...