“A more catholic American Catholic Historical Association”: Recapping the Annual Meeting of the ACHA

[This month Cushwa welcomes Peter Cajka to recap the recent ACHA meeting. Those in the vicinity of South Bend are welcome to the Spring Meeting from March 26-28; while the CFP has closed, registration is now open. Pete is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College, where he works on religion in modern American history. His dissertation traces the revival of interest Americans showed in lived experiences and theologies of conscience in the 1960s and 1970s.]  

Pete Cajka

In the prefatory comments of his presidential address, Daniel Bornstein of Washington University St. Louis urged members of the American Catholic Historical Association to be “catholic” (with a small “c”): universal, broad in our interests, and involving all.

Did the 2015 meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association answer Bornstein’s judicious call? How can future meetings address this challenge?  I report on the 2015 meeting in this post, attempting to convey the breadth and depth of the conference proceedings. I then highlight a few opportunities for the ACHA to become "more catholic."

In terms of historical persons and groups explored, I would say that the 2015 meeting met significant aspects of Bornstein’s challenge.  Papers deepened our knowledge of familiar figures and introduced new subjects to the field. Audiences heard papers on Maria Monk, Action Française, the German Center Party, Jansenists, Archbishop Hughes, Garry Wills, Cardinal Spellman, Pope Francis, Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, Catholic voluntary associations, Catholic progressives, Louis XVI, Oliver Plunkett, and Virgil Michel. A number of fresh subjects joined this seasoned cast of characters. For example, gender studies entered the mix as historians James McCartin, Amy Koehlinger, and James O’Toole explored the “Varieties of Catholic Masculinity” with papers on priests not reluctant to get married; “Boy-ology” and boxing; and manhood at Boston College. The presenters made note of the rich array of sources available to historians of gender in Catholicism, including syllabi for a “Theology of Marriage” course at Boston College and documents that track the popularity of boxing among Catholic Youth Organization members. In his comments, chair Anthony Smith noted that historical research on the role of gender in American Catholic history is still filled with potential. Some excellent recent studies of the lives of Catholic women religious notwithstanding, this panel demonstrated that analysis of the role of gender in the American Catholic past must also take into consideration how Catholics constructed and experienced masculinity.

The ACHA 2015 meeting also featured a strong showing of scholarship on Catholic women, both lay and religious, across the centuries. Carolyn Twomey looked at the gendered aspects of sacramental life in her paper, “Bathing Susanna: The Gender of Baptism in Later Anglo-Saxon England.” Her paper explored how the liturgical evocation of Susanna within a community gathered for baptism highlighted the dangers of specifically female sin. Patrick J. Houlihan gave a paper (titled poetically as “The Sorrowful Mother Stood Weeping”)  on Catholic women engulfed in total war in central Europe. Mary Corley Dunn, Karen Park, and Amy Rosenkrans located women religious on the Canadian and American frontiers, while William B. Kurtz and Stephanie A.T. Jacobe gave papers on Catholic women in the Civil War and Progressive Era. Jacobe’s paper explored the life of Eugenie Uhlrich, an American Catholic writer who contributed pieces to Rosary Magazine and the Catholic World but also wrote for McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, and the Women’s Mid-land Journal.   Eugenie’s writing demonstrated the intersection of work, family, and love for a modern woman at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Presenters at the 2015 ACHA explored some other relatively new territory. Papers on the souls in purgatory by Sarah Nytroe of DeSales University and James G. Kroemer of Concordia University brought the numinous to ACHA 2015.  Certainly a catholic approach to Catholic Studies includes heaven, hell, purgatory, angels, saints, and even the Holy Spirit. Nytroe’s paper looked at the dynamic relationships between the living and the souls in purgatory. Kroemer examined the tensions between understanding purgatory as a “time of cleansing” or a “place of cleansing” in the work of French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. Brenna Moore of Fordham University and Kolby Knight of the University California Santa Barbara broached the themes of secularism/secularization. Moore looked at “French Catholic orientalism after secularism” and Knight looked at “non-sectarianism” in American public life. Mark Thomas Duggan and Matthew Dowling gave papers that looked at Protestant-Catholic relations.  Efforts to include purgatory, secularization, and Protestants helped the ACHA to involve a wider range of historical subjects. We should continue to explore themes like these. Future conferences might use this lens of “relations.”

In terms of geographic reach, the presenters also largely met Bornstein’s challenge. The meeting featured papers on Franciscans in the Chesapeake; Oblate Sisters who ministered to orphaned African American girls on the American frontier; Irish Catholics in colonial Monserrat; Jesuits in early modern Parma; Knights of Malta in Greece; and the Catholics of the diocese of Brooklyn. (A panel on Brooklyn was especially fitting, as the conference took place in that “other diocese” – New York – which usually hogs the scholarly limelight.) Other panels situated Catholicism in Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. As this might suggest, panels at the 2015 ACHA, in line with much recent scholarship, went transnational and transatlantic. A panel on “Negotiating the Atlantic: Catholic Networks in the Early American Republic” put Catholic history in conversation with recent developments in the field of Atlantic history, particularly its strong focus on networks. Chaired by Amanda Porterfield, and with comments from Catherine O’Donnell, this panel featured three young scholars (John Davies, Nicholas Pellegrino, and Jeffrey Wheatley) who explored the ways Catholics created networks in the early United States and throughout the Atlantic World -- ranging from free people of color in Philadelphia to connections made by English clergyman Charles Plowden on both sides of the pond. The panelists made compelling arguments for the inclusion of Catholics in broader narratives of Atlantic history, networks, and community formation in the United States. To further meet Bornstein’s call, future conferences might welcome more focus on Catholicism in China and Africa, and more attention might be dedicated to Catholics in the Pacific world.

While future meetings of the ACHA have room to expand geographically, presenters gave one region special attention at the 2015 conference: presenters did an admirable job of investigating Catholicism in Latin America. There were nine papers on Catholicism in, as one panel title wryly put it, “The Southern Part of the Western Hemisphere.” Jack Clark Robinson gave a paper on Franciscans in Puerto Rico; Arelis Rivero-Cabrera looked at the “Spanish-American-Cuban War” through the eyes of an archbishop; and Elizabeth McGahan examined the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception on mission in Peru. Other papers examined Catholic loyalties to Church and State in Latin America, Vatican II in Panama, and the Jewish themes present in the plays of Sister Juana Nes de la Cruz, member of the Order of Saint Jerome and an important intellectual in seventeenth century New Spain. The panel “Caribbean Catholicism: A Transatlantic Odyssey, 1955-1975,” looked at Puerto Rico, the province of San Juan, and immigration to the city of Miami. Patrick Hayes investigated the role of the Redemptorists in bringing Vatican II to San Juan, specifically the religious order’s work with the poor; Stephen Koeth’s research made clear that the Puerto Rican gubernatorial election of 1960 was a significant Cold War struggle; and Anita Cassavantes Bradford introduced the field to the biography of Monsignor Bryan Walsh, an energetic and significant advocate for immigrants and refugees who arrived in Miami in the mid-to-late twentieth century.

Certainly a catholic ACHA that is truly “broad in its interests” would take care to discuss archives, libraries, digital archives, bibliographical databases, professional life, and community collaboration. These institutions and relationships make Catholic studies possible. The ACHA 2015 had four panels that took on these themes. The panel “Archives, Libraries, and Community Collaboration” featured papers by Christine Angel, Carol Coburn, Patricia Lawton, Maria R. Mazzenga, and Peter J. Wosh.  The panel considered collaboration with archivists, access to the records of religious communities, access to Catholic research resources, the creation of history education materials, and the ethics of collaboration. Panelists discussed a wide range of projects, including the Catholic Research Resources Alliance and the ongoing digitization of Catholic newspapers. A second like-minded panel focused on digital approaches to 19th century Catholic print culture. Undergraduates Evan Thompson and Zachary Davis, along with professor Kyle Roberts, all of Loyola University Chicago, gave a panel on the Jesuit Libraries and the Provenance Project. Thompson discussed how the construction of this database shaped his time at Loyola as a history major and Davis demonstrated how to use the Provenance Project’s Flickr site. Digital history is gaining momentum in Catholic studies and in Catholic history circles, specifically in the area of Jesuit history. Robert Maryks, Kasper Volk, and Chris Staysniak – all from the Boston College History Department – gave a panel on the New Sommervogel Project, a comprehensive bibliography of all things Jesuit that is currently being constructed under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College. The open access, online database, hosted by Brill, will launch sometime this spring. Finally, Angelyn Dries (now president of the ACHA) and Charles Strauss developed a roundtable on the “connections and issues” of moving from graduate student life into faculty positions. Recent doctoral graduates, junior faculty members, and doctoral advisors joined the discussion, which considered how to fully prepare oneself for the competitive job market upon graduation, and offered advice on how junior faculty can try to balance heavy teaching and administrative demands with an imperative to continue writing and publishing.

In addition to the fresh approaches to Catholic masculinity, Catholicism in the Atlantic world and a conjuring of the souls in purgatory, several projects on Catholicism in modern America may be of interest to the readers of this blog. Thomas Rzeznik is working on a project that investigates the intersection of Catholic hospitals and modern Medicare. Gráinne McEvoy is working on a history of Catholic Social Thought and its impact on twentieth-century (i.e., post-1917 restriction) immigration policy. Todd Scribner, who also works on immigration, will soon be publishing a book on neo-conservative Catholics. Julie Yarwood is analyzing thousands of letters Catholics and Protestants sent to FDR during the New Deal; her paper for ACHA 2015 investigated clerical responses to FDR’s 1935 “Letter to the Nation’s Clergy.” Raymond Haberski, who is now researching the history of just war theory, chaired a panel on “Catholics in 1970s America," as Catholic historians begin to push beyond the Vatican II years for in-depth historical research. Anthony Smith examined John Paul II’s first trips to the United States in the 1970s, on which, the Pope celebrated mass with Polish Catholics in Chicago, took criticism about the all-male priesthood, and hewed closely to traditional doctrinal teachings. Charles Strauss of Mount St. Mary’s, also on the panel on the 1970s, is working on a project about lay Catholics in Pittsburgh who synthesized their faith with the technological developments of the 1970s. He presented some of the initial findings of his research, including a biographical profile of energetic churchman John Wright. Panelists (myself included) concluded that the Catholics 1970s might be thought of as a strange mixture of confusion and confidence.

There are, however, a few areas where the ACHA – its rank and file along with its leaders – might be more catholic. First of all, and most importantly, being “catholic with a lower case c” could mean using Twitter. The 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association appeared as the hashtag #AHA2015 in thousands of tweets. A few ACHA members, notably RiAH blogger and digital aficionado Monica Mercado, made the effort to tweet – and to great success – but the ACHA also needs an institutional Twitter presence. The American Catholic Historical Association does not have a Twitter handle and it lacks a hashtag. Please note, ACHA members, that the American Society of Church History goes by the handle @ASChurchHistory and has over 850 followers. The ACHA and its members could make sure that we have a Twitter handle and a viable hashtag by the time of our 2016 meeting in Atlanta.

In the future, a more catholic ACHA might also host book panels. Not to suggest that we are competing with our separated brothers and sisters over at the American Society of Church History, but the ACHA had nothing comparable to the ASCH’s book panel that cross-pollinated Mark Noll’s America’s God and John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. ACHA members should be encouraged to propose book sessions – it’s not as if we lack candidates for panel-setting books. Book panels for 2015/2016 might look at Paula Kane’s Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America, Mary Beth Fraser Connolly’s Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community, Steven Avella’s Confidence and Crisis: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1958-1977, and Una Cadegan’s All Good Books are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship and Modernity in Twentieth Century America.  What new books are coming down the pipeline? We might host a roundtable on books like Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of US History, edited by Kathleen Sprows Cummings and R. Scott Appleby. Why do we not have more panels on historiography? Can we bring in books and speakers from outside Catholic Studies to consider how a focus on Catholics might change the conversation in other fields? Books, it hardly need be said, are part of our “broad interest.”

Finally, the ACHA might be more welcoming to the theoretical work being done in the broader Catholic Studies world. We might even be more welcoming to theologians! Theology and critical studies would be a welcome complement to the more strictly empirical work being done by those of us who are trained in history departments.

I would suggest that members of the ACHA consider some of these reflections on our recent meeting in New York as we approach our spring meeting at the University of Notre Dame in March, and our next annual gathering in Atlanta. I would also like to invite the many readers of this blog who do not work primarily on American Catholic history into a conversation about making the ACHA more “catholic.” There is perhaps no better online forum than the RiAH blog for discussing how the ACHA might become more universal, broad in its interests, and involving all.


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