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Spring Books

Pride and nostalgia from an amazing story

By Thomas O’Connor
Northeastern University Press, 338 pages, $28.95 hardcover


I was predisposed to like this book because I grew up in Boston and because its author, Thomas O’Connor, was for many years my colleague on the faculty of Boston College. At the same time, I was prepared to suggest that the book does not adequately reflect the surging voice of dissent against the church and even defiance that is present in contemporary Boston.

I came to the conclusion that the author gently hints at the dissent but that his role as a historian is to re-create the amazing story of what Catholics did in the last two centuries in Boston. This he has done with clarity, competence.

O’Connor’s book is filled with vignettes like the scene on Easter morning, April 16, 1865, the day after the Catholics of Boston heard of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The faithful dressed in black, the “Te Deum” was not sung, and strong men wept openly.

The triumphalism of the church in the first six decades of this century is noted by O’Connor but neither extolled nor derided. The author simply tells us the story. He is also forthright in his reporting of the story of the scandal involved in an illicit relationship between a woman and the nephew of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York who was a bishop in Boston.

The telling of the achievements of Cardinal Richard Cushing is done with candor. After 1960, O’Connor writes, Cushing’s health deteriorated, and as a result he “became increasingly petulant and quarrelsome, given to fits of self-pity and depression.”

There are all types of other stories in this valuable and readable book. There is new information, for example, on Cushing’s relationship with the Kennedy family. Some readers may feel that O’Connor treats ecclesiastical officials with too much veneration, but the overall tone is not excessively pious.

The tensions between the Protestant Brahmans of Boston and the newly arrived Irish in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a constant theme. The doings of Irish politicians such as James M. Curley are another.

O’Connor, like a traditional historian, relates the achievements of the official church including the numbers of parishes and schools. There is little attempt here to discern and interpret the spirituality of the laity or the relationships between Catholics and Protestants or Jews.

The last chapter touches on the vast falling away from the church among Bostonians, similar to dynamics elsewhere in the country. But the reasons for this defection are quietly set aside as beyond the purview of the book.

Tom O’Connor’s book is a “good read.” It will bring pride and nostalgia to every Catholic, whether content or not with the institutional church. Its story challenges those who love the church to make it more attractive, and those who are inactive Catholics to wonder how they can turn away from an institution that has compelled the loyalty of so many over so long a period of time.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999