Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



St. Mary's College of California


The tension between the terms "American" and "Catholic,, is at least as old as the 1840s, when large numbers of Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States. The attempts of American Catholics through the succeeding 130 years to resolve that tension has spawned, in our day an increasingly sophisticated body of American Catholic history. But since the tension has been so pervasive, engaging theological, philosophical, political, and social issues, there seems to be little danger that we shall ever fully comprehend it (and thus put the historians concerned with it out of business!)

One of the most important complicating factors is the fact that "Catholic" has never been a univocal term in American history. Although the public image of the American Catholic Church has been, until recently, that of a monolithic fortress, ruled by larger-than-life bishops and cardinals, historians are discovering that there has always been a constant series of struggles and rivalries behind the seemingly placid walls. The present essay is an attempt to investigate one type of those struggles, the unequal contest between two of the ethnic groups which make up American Catholicism. Its thesis is that the stimulation of ethnic hostility was an integral part of the effort of one American Catholic group to resolve the tension between the terms "American" and "Catholic."

The evidence for the essay comes from one city during one particular period of time: San Francisco during the Progressive Era. Neither the city nor the time was randomly chosen. San Francisco was selected because it was, from the eastern perspective which tends to dominate American historical writing, on the edge, remote, removed from the constant swirl of politics, ecclesiastical and national. But on a more mundane level, San Francisco was a typical American city. It had its rich, such as the railroad barons, as great a percentage of immigrants in its population as Chicago or Philadelphia, its political bosses like Chris Buckley or Abe Ruef, its scandals and its violence. By 1890 it was the eighth largest city in the country. Despite the claims of its more fervent boosters, past and present, it must be admitted that, besides its location, there was little to distinguish San Francisco from most other American cities at the turn of the century. Doubtless the evidence in this essay suffers from an excessively local focus; on the other hand, the American experience has been the sum of seemingly disparate local occurrences. A city removed yet representative: by looking at it, perhaps we can see through the national mirror a bit less darkly.

Chapter of

An American Church


David J. Alvarez


Reprinted with permission of the editor.

This essay was originally prepared of the Americanization of the Catholic Church conference held at St. Mary's College of California in the summer of 1978.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.