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Reviewed by:
  • Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America
  • Timothy Kelly
Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America. By James T. Fisher (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. x plus 166pp. $9.95).

The Catholic Church has been in a crisis since the late 1960s. It sometimes boils over and draws broad public scrutiny, such as in the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandals, but it simmers mostly out of the broader public arena. Conflict over Catholic identity lies at the heart of the crisis, as American Catholics who once understood clearly what united them to each other and separated them from other Americans have lately struggled to locate themselves in the broader society. That this crisis arrived just as Catholics finally felt fully at ease in American culture has only exacerbated the discomfort. Historians played a significant role in creating the identity consensus in the early twentieth century by writing a variety of works that emphasized Catholic contributions to American culture and the virtues of the church’s bishops and priests as they succeeded in building the nation’s largest religious denomination. Historians also helped to dissolve the consensus when they turned their focus to those outside the central narrative structure of institutional triumph. These works focused on Catholic women, ethnic groups, and reformers who pushed against the dominant clerical culture. James T. Fisher contributed to the dissipation of the identity consensus with an important book on the Catholic counter-culture. His most recent work joins a growing list of narrative histories that attempt to once again locate a distinctive [End Page 253] American Catholic identity and trace its development across five centuries of Christianity in America.

This is no longer an easy task. Jay Dolan, the leading social historian of American Catholicism, suggests in his recent work that the very tensions over Catholic identity, clerical control and authority that so divide Catholics today constitute the central American Catholic narrative. American Catholicism has been all about the struggle over democracy within and outside the church. James Fisher takes a different approach. In his presentation, the most powerful shaping force in the history of the American church has been the immigrant experience, replicated with variation in three major waves in the last two centuries. In this narrative, a steady infusion of Catholics from abroad has fueled the community’s growth, provided its vitality, and strained the dominant forms of American Catholic identity from the earliest European colonization to the most recent waves of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. The unity is the diversity in this multicultural history of American Catholics. Moreover, Fisher argues, this is really the American story as well. In choosing this narrative, Fisher has both recaptured a unifying Catholic identity and placed the Catholic story in the center of the American experience.

Fisher accomplishes this interpretation very ably across only 166 pages, 20 of which reproduce excerpts from key documents in American Catholic history. The volume’s brevity, clear style, and inexpensive price make it a very attractive book for courses in American religion and immigration. It is a quick and accessible read that incorporates the latest scholarship in its fast paced presentation. Throughout his account, Fisher emphasizes the experiences of Catholic groups that would not have stood at the center of the 1950s and 1960s historians’ versions of American Catholicism. Native American, female, and African American Catholics figure prominently throughout.

Fisher begins his narrative with the 1528 arrival of Spanish explorers to the west coast of present day Florida, and the story of their efforts to both exploit and convert the Native American Indians that they encountered. These earliest Catholics established the pattern of profound immigrant influence on American Catholicism. But Fisher also highlights the variety that this source of identity necessarily entails. For soon after the Spanish, both French and English colonists brought their own versions of Catholicism to American shores. The story proceeds quickly through the American church in the period of the Revolution and early nationhood, a long stretch during which immigrants do not seem to stand at the center of American Catholic identity.

In fact, Fisher really begins his interpretive thread in chapter three, which he calls the “Rise of...

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