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The Remaking of the Catholic Working Class: Detroit, 1919–1945

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


This essay examines the response of Catholics—both the institutional church and blue-collar laity—to the turmoil of the late 1930s and the rise of the United Automobile Workers in Detroit. It critiques an influential line of scholarship that holds that the ethnic working class was effectively secularized by the rise of mass culture, the welfare state, and industrial unions. Instead, the essay argues that religion—like class, gender, or race/ethnicity—might fruitfully be analyzed as a “consciousness” and, as such, remains fluid, malleable, and protean in the face of historical change. During the Depression years, blue-collar Catholics (especially Catholic men) experienced a re-creation of their religious consciousness to conform to the new world of industrial unionism. While Detroit’s “labor priests” established the Archdiocesan Labor Institute (ALI) and hosted labor schools in parishes across the city, lay people, spurred by the movement for “Catholic Action,” founded the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) to strengthen working-class faith and “Christianize the UAW.” More important, the ALI and ACTU collectively provided a new religious template within which working-class Catholics might reconcile—even intertwine—their class, gender, and religious identities. While the changes of the 1930s did assimilate ethnic Catholics more fully into the secular sphere, this essay demonstrates that such a process did not result in a “decline” in religious significance for many Catholic workers; more precisely, it meant a “re-making” of religious consciousness.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2009

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2. Of the literature that promotes this interpretation, see especially Fraser, Steve, “The ‘Labor Question,’” in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, ed. Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 5584 Google Scholar; Cohen, Lizabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 Google Scholar); and Gerstle, Gary, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914–1960, 2d ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002 Google Scholar). For the UAW in particular, see Friedlander, Peter, The Emergence of a UAW Local, 1936–1939: A Study in Class and Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975 Google Scholar).

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6. Beyond Thompson, the concept of “religious consciousness” is influenced by the broader approach of “lived religion,” which Robert Orsi has usefully described as the “study of how particular people, in particular places and times, live in, with, through, and against the religious idioms available to them in culture—all the idioms,” including those from other religions as well as secular culture. See Orsi, Robert, “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, ed. Hall, David D. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 320 Google Scholar, quote on 7. The Thompsonian perspective also emphasizes historical specificity and relational forces while adding the sense that consciousness is not only experienced but also “made” via human agency with available cultural tools. The term “life-world” is from Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000 Google Scholar).

7. The “way station” metaphor is from Shaw, Stephen Joseph, The Catholic Parish as a Way-Station of Ethnicity and Americanization: Chicago's Germans and Italians, 1909–1939 (Brooklyn: Carleton, 1991 Google Scholar). Announcements of parish activities were reported in the Michigan Catholic.

8. See especially Rosswurm, Steve, “The Catholic Church and the Left-Led Unions: Labor Priests, Labor Schools, and the ACTU,” in The C.I.O.'s Left-Led Unions, ed. Rosswurm, Steve (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992), esp. 120–30Google Scholar; Seaton, Douglas P., Catholics and Radicals: The Associated Catholic Trade Unionists and the American Labor Movement; from Depression to Cold War (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1981 Google Scholar); and Taft, Philip, “The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 2, no. 2 (1949): 210–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9. National Americanization Committee and Committee for Immigrants in America, Americanizing a City: The Campaign for the Detroit Night Schools … (New York, 1915), 5; Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies, 1926 ; additional statistics in Detroit News May 21, 1924, and Vinyard, JoEllen McNergney, For Faith and Fortune: The Education of Catholic Immigrants in Detroit, 1875–1925 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 149–50Google Scholar.

10. Tentler, , Seasons of Grace, 423 Google Scholar; Wood, Arthur Evans, Hamtramck, Then and Now: A Sociological Study of a Polish-American Community (New York: Bookman, 1955 Google Scholar).

11. On intermarriage rates, see Janis, Ralph, Church and City in Transition: The Social Composition of Religious Groups in Detroit, 1880–1940 (New York: Garland, 1990), 100103 Google Scholar; for background on the “Mystical Body,” see Chinnici, Joseph P., “The Catholic Community at Prayer, 1926–1976,” in Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practice in Twentieth-Century America, ed. O’Toole, James M. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 4149 Google Scholar; and on the education issue, see Vinyard, , For Faith and Fortune, esp. 222–41Google Scholar.

12. Vinyard, , For Faith and Fortune, quote on 222 Google Scholar.

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14. Coughlin, , Father Coughlin's Radio Discourses, 86, 98, 176Google Scholar.

15. Coughlin, , A Series of Lectures on Social Justice, 22, 16Google Scholar.

16. United Automobile Worker, May 1936; Lichtenstein, Nelson and Meyer, Steven, eds., On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto-Work (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989 Google Scholar).

17. Tentler, , Seasons of Grace, 319–24Google Scholar; United Automobile Worker, November 26, 1938; Mortimer, Wyndham, Organize! My Life as a Union Man, ed. Fenster, Leo (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), quotes on 9697 Google Scholar.

18. United Automobile Worker, January 1, February 5, 1938; Sebastian Erbacher to Norman McKenna, TL, February 25, 1938, in Norman McKenna Papers, American Catholic Research Center (hereafter ACRC), Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., Box 1, Folder 6; “Minutes of the Meeting of January 26, 1939 to Plan Parish Labor Schools,” TMs, in Raymond Clancy Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit (hereafter WPRLLUA), Box 1, Folder 15; see also Raymond Clancy, “Detroit ALI,” in Christian Social Action, December 1939.

19. Detroit Times, November 13, 1939; Michigan Catholic, November 9, 1939.

20. Raymond Clancy, “Talk on the industrial dispute … ,” November 15, 1939, TMs, Clancy Papers, Box 4, Folder 2; Interviews with J. L. Cavanaugh and John Coogan in “Survey of Racial and Religious Conflict Forces in Detroit,” TMs, September 1943, in Civil Rights Congress of Michigan Collection, WPRLLUA, Box 71, Folder “Survey.”

21. George Addes to Raymond Clancy, TL, November 20, 1939, and Frank Boucher to Raymond Clancy, November 16, 1939, both in Clancy Papers, Box 4, Folder 2.

22. Interview with John Zaremba, TMs, in UAW Oral History Project, WPRLLUA.

23. For background on both the Catholic Worker and ACTU, see Piehl, Mel, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982 Google Scholar), and Fisher, James Terence, The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989 Google Scholar); Cort, John quoted in Voices from the Catholic Worker, ed. Troester, Rosalie Riegle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 14 Google Scholar; see also Cort's, memoir, Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003 Google Scholar).

24. Tentler, , Seasons of Grace, 436 Google Scholar; Mooney quoted in Michigan Catholic, September 16, 1937; for an excellent discussion of Catholic Action, see Chinnici, “The Catholic Community at Prayer.”

25. S.J., Edward Duff, “Activation in ACTU,” Queen's Work, May 1946 Google Scholar.

26. Ibid.; “Constitution of the ACTU,” adopted July 15, 1938, in Association of Catholic Trade Unionist Collection (hereafter ACTU), Box 1, Folder 1, WPRLLUA; see also the finding aid of this collection (see page 1) for biographical details of ACTU leaders.

27. Christian Social Action, September 1939.

28. Taft, “The Association of Catholic Trade Unionists,” 211, 215; Cort, , Dreadful Conversions, 160 Google Scholar; Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997)Google Scholar.

29. On this ideology, see especially McGreevy, John T., Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003 Google Scholar); for quote, see Ward, Richard J., “The Role of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists in the Labor Movement,” Review of Social Economy 16 (September 1956): 86 Google Scholar.

30. “Proposed Topics for a Catholic Social Manifesto,” TMs (n.d.), ACTU, Box 11, Folder “Catholic Social Manifesto,” quotes on 6, 3, 4, 5. The “Industry Council Plan” was a constant feature in the ACTU newspaper; see, for example, Weber's, Paul description of “economic democracy” in Wage Earner, January 8, 1943 Google Scholar.

31. “Minutes of the Meeting of January 26, 1939, to Plan Parish Labor Schools,” TMs, Clancy Papers, Box 1, Folder 15; see also Clancy, , “Detroit ALI,” Christian Social Action, December 1939 Google Scholar.

32. O’Connor, Neil, “Priests and Labor,” Christian Front, October 1938 Google Scholar.

33. Clerical assessments of the labor schools in Clancy Papers, Box 1, Folder 18.

34. Ibid.

35. Student's assessments of the labor schools contained in Clancy Papers, Box 1, Folders 16, 17.

36. Ibid.

37. “Constitution of the ACTU,” adopted July 15, 1938, in ACTU, Box 1, Folder 1; “ACTU Bulletin,” in ACTU, Box 1, Folder 3.

38. On Pinkowicz, see Friedlander, , Emergence of a UAW Local, esp. 2430 Google Scholar. For an assessment of Friedlander, see Sternsher, Bernard, “Great Depression Labor Historiography in the 1970s: Middle-Range Questions, Ethnocultures, and Levels of Generalization,” Reviews in American History 11 (June 1983): 300319 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39. “ACTU Bulletin,” ACTU, Box 1, Folder 3; Interview with George Merrelli in Polish-American Autoworkers Oral History Collection, WPRLLUA, 18, 37, 38; Interview with Frank Marquart in UAW Oral History Project, WPRLLUA, 9, 11–12.

40. Seaton, Catholics and Radicals, is the most noticeable example.

41. Cort in Voices of the Catholic Worker, ed. Troester, 13.

42. ACTU, Box 1, Folders 4, 5.

43. ACTU Chrysler Local 7 newsletter, July 14, 1939, in ACTU, Box 23, Folder “Chrysler Local 7.”

44. “Actist Bulletin,” August 25, 1938, ACTU, Box 1, Folder 1; “Actist Bulletin,” ACTU, Box 1, Folder 3.

45. ACTU, Box 3, Folder “Parish Captain Minutes.”

46. Ibid.

47. “Catholic Social Manifesto.” Women were frequently discouraged from entering the workforce by ACTU chaplains; see Wage Earner, May 14, 1943, and June 11, 1943, for just two examples.

48. Michigan Catholic, May 2, 1940; Untitled TMs by Archbishop Edward Mooney in ACTU, Box 4, Folder “May Day 1940,” 1, 3.

49. Untitled TMs by Archbishop Edward Mooney, in ACTU, Box 4, Folder “May Day 1940”; “Resolution,” August 5, 1938, in ACTU, Box 34, Folder “UAW, 1938–1940.”

50. Day, Dorothy, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (New York: Harper, 1952), 172, 174Google Scholar. On Catholic intellectuals, see Woods, Thomas E. Jr., The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom ; on architecture, see Kane, Paula M., Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

51. On the banner, see Michigan Catholic, September 14, 1939; College, Marygrove, The Guilds—Medieval and Modern (Detroit: Marygrove College, 1940)Google Scholar; Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence, eds., The Invention of Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)Google Scholar.

52. Michigan Catholic, March 14, 1940.

53. See a number of Clancy's invocations, including “Invocation to be Given at the War Emergency Conference … ,” April 7, 1942, TMs, in Clancy Papers, Box 2, Folder 22.

54. Michigan Catholic, April 15, 1937; see also “An American Workman's Creed,” in Michigan Catholic, January 4, 1940.

55. Clancy quoted in the Detroit News, January 13, 1941; Clancy quoted in Duff, “Acticvation in the ACTU,” 10; William Smith, S.J., “Fifteen Minutes with Christ the Worker” (1939), copy in Clancy Papers, Box 9, Folder 14.

56. Prayer card in ACTU, Box 1, Folder 1.

57. “Introductory Talk: ‘Not by Bread Alone, Doth Man Live!’” TMs, ACTU, Box 3, Folder “ACTU Lectures.” It is unclear who wrote this lecture.