I’m a big fan of a new book titled “New York Catholics, Faith, Attitude and the Works” by Dr. Patrick McNamara. I write that not just because I’m one of the 71 people profiled in the book but because it is an outstanding piece of scholarship that offers insight into the history of the Church in New York City.
McNamara, who has a doctorate in Church history from Catholic University, Washington, D.C., has compiled profiles of some of the better and lesser known Catholics of the five boroughs, both living and dead.
Interested in holiness? There is the story of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, a prominent Manhattan socialite who was widowed, converted to Catholicism and founded the Sisters of Charity. There’s also Venerable Pierre Toussaint, an Haitian immigrant who was a daily communicant for more than 60 years at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in Downtown Manhattan.
Want to know about the beginnings of the Brooklyn Diocese? Read the chapter on Peter Turner, who “virtually founded” Catholicism on Long Island and is credited with establishing the first parish in Brooklyn – what we now call St. James Cathedral.
New York’s Archbishop John J. Hughes and Brooklyn Bishop John Loughlin are the subjects for study, as well as lesser known clergy such as Father Johann Raffeiner, known as the Apostle to the German immigrants in Most Holy Trinity parish, Williamsburg.
There’s a chapter on Gov. Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president of the U.S., and on Patrick F. Scanlan, editor of The Tablet for 51 years. Also, Servants of God Dorothy Day and Msgr. Bernard Quinn.
Fast forward to contemporary folks, and you’ll find the likes of Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, C.S.J., who recently won the national Opus prize for her great humanitarian work at Hour Children; Brother Tyrone Davis, of the Archdiocesan Office of Black Ministry; and Tony Rossi of Woodside, the director of communications for The Christophers. Another familiar name is Matthew Schiller, former associate publisher of The Tablet and now business manager of Catholic New York.
Some fun facts you’ll discover include: Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, was born in Brooklyn but got his first feel for acting as an altar boy at St. Mary’s Church in Saugerties, N.Y. Also, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone of Astoria and his wife of 54 years still live in the same house where their sons were raised.
When McNamara, who grew up in St. Thomas the Apostle, Woodhaven, agreed to write the book, he did so because “it would be a book that cut right to the core of who I am.” In the midst of the project, he and his family were forced out of their Astoria apartment when fire destroyed the house. They relocated to a Queens motel, where much of the book was written on a laptop computer. A true labor of love!
“I loved writing about the people in this book – every single one of them, from St. Elizabeth Seton right on down to Father Mychal Judge,” he says.
He hopes the book offers an answer to the question of what it means to be a Catholic in New York City.
“Being Catholic is about more than the observance of rules,” he writes. “Catholicism, as author Flannery O’Connor put it, is a ‘habit of being,’ a way of viewing and relating to both God and humanity. In short, this book is meant to be a celebration of what it means to be a Catholic New Yorker.”
“New York Catholics,” published by Orbis Books, the publishing house of Maryknoll, is available at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores as well as on Amazon. It’s 210 pages and sells for $24.