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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 343-344
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Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. By Mary Lethert Wingerd. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2001. Pp. xv, 326. $29.95.)
Mary Lethert Wingerd's Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul originated as a history doctoral dissertation at Duke University. This readable volume in the Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America focuses on the perception that St. Paul and Minneapolis created thoroughly distinctive versions of civic life, each reflecting social and economic localism. The author dismisses a standard explanation for the difference, namely, that the conservatism of Irish Catholics shaped the state's capital city.
To find a satisfying answer, Wingerd plunges into economic, political, and social life of St. Paul, especially between the 1880's and 1930's. Local pundits typically describe St. Paul as the home of Irish Catholic Democrats as Minneapolis is for Scandinavian Protestant Republicans, but Wingerd finds that the Twin Cities shared a population mix similar in ethnic composition and religious affiliation. Each city boasted a sizable minority of working-class Catholics. Those in Minneapolis, however, remained removed from their city's sources of power, [End Page 343] while some of St. Paul's Irish Catholics managed to improve their social and economic status thanks to the smaller twin's culture of accommodation, crafted from numerous alliances involving the city's business leaders, Democratic politicians, labor interests, and the Catholic Church. Labor-management relations and politics in St. Paul normally remained more harmonious than those across the Mississippi River. The culture of "live and let live" had its darker side: for decades St. Paul officials tolerated vice and the presence of gangsters, or what Wingerd calls its "economy of sin." With railroad baron James J. Hill and Archbishop John Ireland fading from the scene, World War I would create stresses and strains as St. Paul dealt with such volatile issues as nativism, the loyalty crusade, the Nonpartisan League, and a streetcar strike and riot. Thus, the issues of the war era severely challenged St. Paul's leadership and civic culture of accommodation.
Claiming the City should appeal to social historians and serious readers interested in the history of the Twin Cities. The book captures the complicated workings of social, economic, and political forces in shaping a city where certain Irish Catholics could realize their dreams. Wingerd's magical use of language sketches vivid portraits of well-known leaders such as Hill and Ireland, but also of lesser lights, for example, Ireland's successor Austin Dowling, public safety commissioner John McGee, and Mayor Willliam Mahoney.
Historians of American Catholicism can appreciate the volume's path-breaking attempt to integrate ethnic Catholics, including women, into the mainstream of urban history. In St. Paul, ethnic Catholics clearly permeated the class and economic boundaries by the turn of the century. The book's dazzling thesis is largely convincing, although some readers may feel less enthusiastic about the limited analysis of the religious beliefs and practices of working-class Catholics. Its focus on "faith" relates to ethno-religious identity rather than to the religious beliefs of St. Paul's ethnic Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.
The volume is less authoritative in its command of religious history. John A. Ryan makes an appearance as John P. Ryan. Certain interpretations, particularly involving Catholic leaders or projects, are advanced with perhaps more inference than hard evidence. Some of these problematic interpretations would include the allegedly cool relationship between Archbishop John Ireland and Mary Mehegan Hill, F. Scott Fitzgerald's feelings of marginalization, and James J. Hill's requirement that the St. Paul Seminary remain in the hands of the archdiocese (pp. 286-287, n.99) without reference to John Ireland's well established wariness of religious-order priests.
Lavishly illustrated with well chosen photographs and gracefully written, Claiming the City excels at providing a lively and original interpretation of St. Paul's social history.
University of St. Thomas