As recently as the 1970s, United States Catholic history tended to be written from the perspective of the “great men” credited with building the church in this country. Institutional histories focused on the priests and bishops responsible for the establishment of dioceses, colleges, and hospitals—if women religious were involved, they may have received a nod for their contribution to the process. Even commemorative volumes celebrating significant anniversaries of parishes revolved around pastors, all of whom, it seems, were competent, pastoral, and blessed with a keen sense of financial acumen. Over the last several decades, historians have taken a new approach to the writing of Catholic history. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836–1920 by Carol K. Coburn and Martha Smith (1999); James M. O’Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2008); and James T. Fisher, On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (2010) are all fine examples of studies that focus on women religious, the laity, and the role of the church in the labor movement with an eye toward the larger stories of both Catholicism and U.S. culture.
Two recent books, America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital by Thomas Tweed and Mrs. Mattingly’s Miracle: The Prince, the Widow, and the Cur e That Shocked Washington City by Nancy Lusignan Schultz, each take a very different—and unique—approach to the study of Catholicism, and they contribute markedly to our understanding of its place in U.S. culture. Although the subjects of both books are situated in the District of Columbia, any similarity between the two ends there. America’s Church places the Basilica National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (BNSIC) within the story of twentieth-century Catholicism; Schultz’ work [End Page 656] revolves around a reported miracle that took place during the first half of the nineteenth century. The methodologies used by each author allow readers to move beyond the basic narratives and gain a better understanding of the broader issues that run throughout the two studies, such as the role of women, race, and anti-Catholicism.
America’s Church is about much more than the bishops who managed the construction of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The first major point of this work, according to Tweed, is that “Catholics of all sorts had a presence” at the shrine (p. 8). Residents of the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs were able to attend Mass regularly, but Catholics living outside of the area contributed to its financial support as well and visited if and when they were able. During the early stages of the planning and building of the BNSIC, laywomen in particular “had more of a presence” than they would after 1953 when the process of soliciting contributions became more centralized (p. 12). Tweed’s second point is that, between 1909 and 1959, most American Catholics shared a similar worldview that was propagated from the pulpit and reinforced in the parish school. The priests and bishops responsible for the design and implementation of the Shrine are the focus of Tweed’s third point: although these clerical leaders may have differed on details of construction and maintenance, they all agreed on the main goals relating to a significant Catholic presence in the nation’s capital.
Six chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, help develop the book’s three major themes. Chapter one examines the building itself and explains the connection between the construction of the BNSIC and what has been called the “age of Mary,”—the period from 1850 until 1950 when Marian devotion rose to...