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  • Diocese of Immigrants: The Brooklyn Catholic Experience, 1853-2003
  • Thomas J. Shelley
Diocese of Immigrants: The Brooklyn Catholic Experience, 1853-2003. (Strasbourg: Éditions du Signe. 2004. Pp. 240. $35.00.)

When the Brooklyn Bridge was opened in 1883, it connected the first and third largest cities in the United States. Today, more residents of New York City live on the Brooklyn side of the bridge than on the Manhattan side, but Manhattan still tends to overshadow its neighbor to the east. The same is true of the archdiocese of New York and the diocese of Brooklyn. When the secretary of education of the archdiocese boasted some years ago about the number of students in parochial schools in New York City, he omitted to mention that the majority of them were in the schools of the diocese of Brooklyn.

Diocese of Immigrants, written to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the diocese, should help to correct such unfortunate misconceptions. Although the smallest American diocese in area, Brooklyn remains one of the half-dozen largest in population even after the loss of its two suburban counties to the diocese of Rockville Centre in 1957. The authors, Joseph W. Coen, Patrick J. McNamara, and Peter I. Vaccari, trace its rich history from its establishment in 1853 to the present day in a lavishly illustrated book that should have a wide appeal.

In a blend of institutional and social history, they follow the traditional pattern of devoting a chapter to each bishop, but they also give ample attention to the ethnic diversity that has long been characteristic of a diocese where Mass is celebrated every Sunday in twenty different languages, including Ebo, Igbo, Twi, and Urdu. They provide a kaleidoscopic panorama of virtually every aspect of Catholic life in the diocese including religious communities, parish societies, devotional practices, education, health care, social services, and ecumenism. The Catholic press merits particular notice in a diocese where Patrick Scanlan made The Tablet nationally known if not universally admired. To their credit the authors do not shy away from discussing the clerical sexual abuse crisis that exploded in 2002.

Brooklyn was once known as the City of Churches. Diocese of Immigrants reminds us how many of them are Catholic churches, often built on a grand scale that is not likely to be duplicated today. Perhaps it was in Brooklyn that native-son George Mundelein first acquired his taste for always going first class. There is a color photograph of the exterior of every one of the 217 parish churches, but a map of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens would have been helpful. Even veteran residents of the other three boroughs of New York City often need to ask directions when they cross the East River.

Thomas J. Shelley
Fordham University


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