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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 149-182

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Bringing Religion into Working-Class History:
Parish, Public, and Politics in Providence, 1890–1930 * - [PDF]

Evelyn Savidge Sterne


The Parish as Public Space

In August 1927, the Virgin Mary made a surprise appearance in Providence, Rhode Island. Her image mysteriously hovered on the wall of a building on Federal Hill, the city’s central Italian American neighborhood. Streets were filled and businesses disrupted as crowds assembled to regard the phenomenon. When the Narragansett Electric Company removed the bulb from a nearby street lamp, the image disappeared, but thousands of believers continued to assemble nonetheless. The Providence Journal finally sent a reporter [End Page 149] to Federal Hill to get to the bottom of the mystery. Several onlookers told the reporter that Mary had appeared in Providence because God was unhappy about the impending execution of Italian radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Providence Journal [PJ] 10 August 1927).

The “Miracle on Federal Hill,” as the incident became known, is a powerful example of the ways in which the working people of Providence used religion as a political tool. The city’s overwhelmingly Catholic working class drew on a time-honored tradition by using the moral authority of their faith to make public statements. Catholicism provided them with much more than a rhetorical weapon, however. Their parishes served as neighborhood centers and alternative political sites. The Catholic church was, in fact, the most important public space in working-class Providence.

From the 1890s through the 1920s, four decades of mass immigration, the parish was the institution most accessible to a laboring class that was mostly Catholic in faith, foreign in parentage, and unrepresented in other organizations. Most Providence workers were at least partially disfranchised, through national gender restrictions until 1920 and local property requirements until 1928.1 A minority of workers, most of them Irish Americans, belonged to unions before the 1930s.2 And close to 40% were women, who lacked access to such male gathering places as saloons and mutual aid societies (Buhle 1987: 9). In short, the sites usually recognized as working-class organizational sites—taverns, union halls, and political machine headquarters—were off-limits to a significant proportion of the city’s working people. The parish was the only place where every Catholic working person could, theoretically, be a member. Even those Catholics without a strong sense of faith could welcome the church as a community center and an organizational base.

Parishes, therefore, were the places where the largest proportion of working people congregated. Not only did they provide spiritual sustenance, material relief, and social fellowship, but they also served as political organizing spaces where members came together, traded information, and raised challenges. Throughout this period, Providence Catholics drew on religious rhetoric and the parish’s institutional resources to assert their rights as Americans. In so doing they countered a restrictive conception of citizenship that questioned the civic fitness of Catholics and immigrants and dismissed the rights of workers. The parish thus provided an arena through which members became active in public life. [End Page 150]

In making this argument I distinguish between the church as an institution and religion as a set of beliefs, but I also argue that the two worked in tandem. Although this essay focuses on the institutional roles of the church, it recognizes the critical importance of religious faith as a value system, a source of solace and inspiration, and a rhetorical tool. Religion offered working people a means of ordering urban life, a strength that enabled them to contest injustice, and an authority that provided leverage over employers and civic leaders (Scott 1985: 58–59, 134–35; Salvatore forthcoming). The parish was an effective political base not only because it provided a gathering space but also because church-based activism carried a moral imperative.

In arguing for the centrality of the Catholic Church in working-class public life, I challenge the tendency of modern American labor historians to overlook religion or to dismiss it as a negative...


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