Book Reviews

Priest from Williamsburg Gave a Feisty Witness to Priesthood

“The Heroic Priesthood of Father William B. Farrell 1857-1930: Fighting Anti-Catholicism, Government Corruption and Waterfront Gangsters in New York” by Rev. Brian Jordan, O.F.M. Edwin Mellen Press (Lewiston, New York, June 2017) pp. 204.                                                                       

IF YOU LOVE local history in our Brooklyn neighborhoods and parishes, you will love this book.

If you are ready to be surprised by the anti-Catholicism right here in New York City a hundred years ago, this book will get you angry.

If you have fond memories of Brooklyn priests who fought for the people they served, this book will make you proud.

When Franciscan Father Brian Jordan was doing some research on his family history in 2015, he went to SS. Peter and Paul Church in Williamsburg to look up the marriage certificate of his grandparents who were married there in 1915. Father William Farrell officiated at that wedding and Father Jordan decided to look up some local history.

Negotiated Just Wages

A front-page article that appeared in The New York Times in 1910 caught his attention: “One Dead, Many Shot in Sugar Strike Riot.” The American Sugar Company’s largest plant was on Kent Avenue, near SS. Peter and Paul parish. The company was hiring non-union workers. Violence broke out and the company asked Father Farrell to calm things. The parish priest helped end the violence and negotiate a just wage for all the workers.

Father Farrell also participated in an interfaith prayer service for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in early April, 1911. A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Protestant minister prayed over the victims’ graves in Evergreen Cemetery, Brooklyn. Although the tragic fire occurred in Manhattan, many of the victims’ families resided in the Williamsburg neighborhood of SS. Peter and Paul parish. This event serves as a foreshadowing of interfaith services in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Stood Up to Anti-Catholic Bias

During those years, Father Farrell was also the director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn. This drew him into a major conflict with a few city officials who thought that churches should not receive public funding for the widows and orphans who were being cared for in Catholic institutions. There was a clear anti-Catholic bias in the minds of many political leaders in the city. Father Farrell wrote a number of pamphlets. One of them attacked politicians, calling their inquiry into Catholic Charities a “Slander Factory.”

Father Farrell was well prepared to author these influential essays for one primary reason: Catholic education. Father Farrell was taught to read and write by the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Peter’s Elementary School in Lower Manhattan; to develop essays by the Vincentian Fathers in St. John’s Prep (eventually St. John’s University) in Brooklyn; to excel in writing essays by the Irish Christian Brothers in Manhattan College, the Bronx, and finally, learn to write homilies and essays by the Sulpician Fathers through his seminary studies at the Grand Séminaire de Montréal in Canada.

His upbringing in Catholic education on all levels was directly responsible for his brilliant essays which helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the Roman Catholic Church concerning orphanages.

The Tablet, The Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times are all frequently cited by Father Jordan in his enlightening book.

In 1916, Father Farrell, this caring parish priest, was shocked to discover that his rectory phone was tapped by order of the political leadership in the city. Wiretapping technology was very new at the time. The court orders that are required today to wiretap a civilian phone were not in place and this case helped bring about some protection for private citizens.

Father Farrell wrote: “If wiretapping were to be permitted, no man’s private affairs are safe. This is the most contemptible and mean infringement on personal rights that has ever occurred in this country.” Father Farrell, brave and prophetic, was ahead of his time.

In the world today, many public agencies in New York State and New York City search diligently for the most trustworthy partners who can accept responsibility to accompany and care for the poorest and most neglected citizens, those who are struggling at the peripheries of society’s attention. Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens enjoys the highest reputation for professionalism, competency and honesty. Father Farrell would be very proud!

Father Jordan gives a courageous witness to priesthood in New York today, and his newest book provides rich insights into local history and the history of Father Farrell, an exemplary priest and another courageous New Yorker!

Msgr. Geraghty is the pastor emeritus of St. Robert Bellarmine parish, Bayside.