- Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia by Thomas F. Rzeznik
Church and Estate is a study of the social and religious changes that took place in Philadelphia during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Using this city as a case study is helpful, Thomas Rzeznik argues, because its “developmental trajectory serves as a representative example of how wealth transformed American society—creating value systems, reordering class relations, and structuring authority” (p. 4). Examining the ways in which wealthy Philadelphians were involved with their particular religious traditions helps historians to understand “how religious belief and denominational affiliation shaped individuals’ class identity and informed their public actions” (p. 5) and also assesses the ways in which these same people were able to influence the local church and the larger denomination. “If you want my money,” a wealthy church-going Philadelphian might have said to his pastor, “you will listen to my concerns.” [End Page 180]
Although the Episcopal Church receives a good deal of attention—and rightly so, because many of its members were important leaders in the city’s business and financial community—Philadelphia’s Catholics, Quakers, and even the Church of the New Jerusalem (founded by Emmanuel Swedenborg) play integral parts in Rzeznik’s story. The building of the latter’s Bryn Athyn Cathedral, for instance, was the “product of the union of religious faith and aesthetic philosophy, made possible by upper-class patronage” (p. 85).
Historians of U.S. Catholicism will be especially interested in two aspects of Reznik’s study. The first focuses on the growth of Catholicism in Bryn Mawr, a town located on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Although the area’s early Catholic community was primarily poor—many of them worked as servants for the neighborhood’s wealthy families—-by 1896, Our Mother of Good Counsel parish was able to spend $40,000 on a new church building. The design of Good Counsel was similar to the nearby Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and was therefore “an appropriately fashionable Main Line church, which from all outward appearances might have been mistaken as Protestant” (p. 99).
Second, Church and Estate includes a discussion of St. Katharine Drexel from the perspective of wealth and philanthropy. The terms of her father’s will prevented Drexel and her sisters from transferring any of their inherited money to any other person or organization, which meant she would be unable to use her inheritance to support her religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The solution was for Vatican leaders to grant Drexel a dispensation from the traditional vow of poverty taken by women religious, as well as allowing her to retain her name and legal identity. Drexel’s story is indicative of the ways in which wealthy Americans—Protestant and Catholic—began to ensure that their money would be used under the terms and conditions set by the benefactors, not the recipients of their largesse. Drexel herself participated in this aspect of philanthropy by asking those she assisted to demonstrate financial accountability.
The situation that Rzeznik portrays so effectively could not last forever. The growth of the suburbs meant that many urban Protestant churches could not sustain their influence when their members deserted them for a quieter life outside of the city. Catholic parishes, at least in the early-twentieth century, remained stable because new immigrants quickly replaced those able to relocate to more affluent neighborhoods.
Church as Estate is a well-written and meticulously researched book on a topic that has received little attention from historians of U.S. Catholicism to date. By examining the ways in which wealthy Christians—Catholics and Protestants—supported their churches, Rzeznik has contributed to our knowledge of both the development of Catholic philanthropy and the role played by wealthy Philadelphia Catholics in the growth of the U.S. Church. [End Page 181]