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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 383-385

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Book Review

Commonwealth Catholicism:
A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia

Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia. By Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2001. Pp. xxix, 687. $34.95.)

In this authoritative narrative the author has left no stone unturned in his effort to describe a remarkable development that covered some four hundred years. It begins with the ill-fated efforts of Spanish Jesuits to establish a mission near the York River in 1570. It ends with the appointment of Walter F. Sullivan as Richmond's eleventh bishop in 1974.

The movement of the Brents from Maryland to northern Virginia is cited as a milestone. Their home on Aquia Creek would in 1930 be memorialized with a large crucifix and plaque. There annual pilgrimages would be held, often favored by the Marine Band from Quantico, as a reminder of the longevity of the Catholic presence in Virginia. John Carroll's visits to his Brent relatives is duly noted before the author takes us to the first unhappy attempt to make Virginia a diocese.

In 1820, in an effort to quell trusteeism in Norfolk, Patrick Kelly of Ireland was named first bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, which encompassed the State of Virginia. As a result of the vehement opposition to this appointment on the part of Archbishop Ambrose Maréchal of Baltimore, who was not consulted, Kelly left Virginia in 1822 without even having seen his see city. From then until 1840 the archbishops of Baltimore were, in effect, also the bishops of Richmond.

The nine bishops of Richmond after 1840 were Richard Vincent Whelan (1840-1850), John McGill (1850-1872), James Gibbons (1872-1877), John [End Page 383] Joseph Keane (1878-1888), Augustine van de Vyver (1889-1911), Denis O'Connell (1912-1926), Andrew Brennan (1926-1945), Peter L. Ireton (1945-1958), and John J. Russell (1958-1973). Four of the nine were born in Baltimore (Whelan, Gibbons, Ireton, and Russell), two in Ireland (Keane and O'Connell), two in Pennsylvania (McGill and Brennan), and one in Belgium (van de Vyver). Three (Gibbons, Keane, and O'Connell), who had attempted to "apply the accommodating style of Virginia Catholicism on a national level" (p. 190), were the leaders of the Americanizers in the turbulent decade and a half at the end of the nineteenth century so well rehearsed by the historians of American Catholicism. Despite certain affinities the bishops of Richmond differed markedly in temperament and tactics. None was a carbon copy of his predecessor.

By and large the bishops of Richmond were liberal-minded, at least ecumenical. Beginning with McGill all were attentive to the needs of their African-American charges. Russell was outstanding in his promotion of civil rights; integration came to the diocese on the eve of Brown vs. Board of Education. From the diocesan clergy came three of the most progressive bishops in the South in near-contemporary times: Vincent Waters of Raleigh, Ernest Unterkoefler of Charleston, and Carroll Dozier of Memphis.

The laity was largely old stock until the coming of Irish professionals and merchants at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But the demographic base of the diocese was laid by the Irish who came to work on the railroads the decade before and after the Civil War. Virginia welcomed only a trickle of "New Immigrants" at the end of the century and beginning of the next: Italians, Slavic Europeans, and Syrian Maronites. The two world wars would bring Americans of many backgrounds. A global economy would finally bring modest numbers of Hispanics and Asians.

Except for the relatively brief tantrums in Virginia of the Know Nothings of the 1850's and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920's Virginia Catholics lived at peace with their Protestant neighbors. In 1938, when Richmond hosted the Rural Life Conference, it was noted that 93 percent of the diocese's Catholics lived in urban areas. World War II brought newcomers...


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