Lay Leaders as Cultural Mediators: The Catholic Experience in Nineteenth-Century Savannah, Georgia

Lay Leaders as Cultural Mediators: The Catholic Experience in Nineteenth-Century Savannah, Georgia
A paper presented at the 1998 annual meeting of American Academy of Religion

© 1998 by Thomas Paul Thigpen

In 1870, the city of Savannah, Georgia, made headlines around the nation when it set in place a highly unusual arrangement for public education: That year, the city's two Catholic free schools were received into the public school system while retaining their identity as Catholic institutions. Throughout the nation at that time, Catholic and general public opinion tended to be sharply divided on the issue of parochial public school cooperation. Yet in Savannah, a workable solution had been hammered out. The city paid the bills for faculty salaries, building maintenance, and supplies; the parochial schools met in church owned facilities and retained the right to have religious instruction and holidays, Catholic teachers, and textbooks of their own choosing. Evidently, Savannah residents, both Catholic and non Catholic, found these accommodations satisfactory. The Savannah Plan, as it was called, remained in place until the First World War.

This remarkable development poses the central question and illumines the guiding thesis of a study I have undertaken focusing on the Catholic experience in nineteenth-century Savannah. The Savannah Plan represented a striking degree of Catholic integration into the public life of a numerically Protestant city. It vividly symbolized how Catholics there had succeeded in maintaining a distinctive religious identity while socially assimilating themselves to the larger community.

The dual goal of religious distinctiveness and social assimilation — of achieving a "double identity" as both Catholics and Americans — was of course shared by Catholic communities throughout the United States; some historians have in fact labeled it "the single most important theme of American Catholic history." For Catholics in the Old South, the challenge to be both Catholic and American was compounded further still by the regional distinctives that often set them and their Protestant fellows at odds with the citizens of the North. Historian Randall Miller has pointed out how the "prickly Southern self consciousness," which grew more so as the sectional dispute over slavery heated up, generated deep anxiety among the region's Catholics who watched nervously as Northern abolitionists joined forces with anti Catholic nativists to confuse the "identity" issue even further. In that light, we might actually speak of a "triple identity" for Catholics in the Old South, or better yet, a "triune" identity that demanded three loyalties in one community.

American historian Carl Degler has concluded that the presentation of our national history should be organized around the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" Sr. Mary Philip Trauth, an historian of Catholics in America, has added to that observation a suggestion that her colleagues should build the frameworks of their study upon the question, "What does it mean to be an American Catholic?" For the historian of Catholics in the American South, then, yet a third qualification is necessary: "What does it mean to be a Southern American Catholic?"

In most places throughout the country, the Catholic goal of religious distinctiveness and social assimilation was not as successfully achieved by 1870 as it was in Savannah. Furthermore, in many cities, sectarian violence during the preceding decades had hindered the progress of the Catholic community, yet Catholic Savannahians never experienced that problem. A variety of factors no doubt contributed to this situation. Some have suggested, for example, that the smaller number of Catholics in the South made non Catholics perceive them as less of a threat to the established order than they appeared to be in Northern urban settings. But that explanation does not account for the fact that anti Catholic violence did erupt in some antebellum Southern settings as well, and cities such as Atlanta and St. Augustine explicitly rejected attempts to follow Savannah's lead in educational cooperation with the Church.

Avery Craven, an historian of the Old South, has concluded that Catholics were "too well integrated into Southern life to produce serious hostile reaction," and in Savannah's case that certainly seems to have been true. But just how was that critical social integration achieved, and how was it achieved without the loss of religious distinctiveness?

To answer this question I turned first to a number of primary sources: parish records of the Church of St. John the Baptist, Savannah's first congregation; the diocesan newspaper, called The United States Catholic Miscellany; local secular newspapers, government documents, records of voluntary associations, and personal papers. These were supplemented by interviews with living descendants of the Catholic community of that time, as well as an examination of numerous artifacts of material culture, such as family heirlooms, residential and commercial architecture, and funerary art. I limited the years under study to the half century from 1820 to 1870 for a number of reasons I won't go into now.

As I began to explore all these sources, both religious and secular, a clear pattern in Savannah's Catholic life began to emerge. Whether I was reading the diocesan newspaper or the city's secular press, reviewing the officer lists of volunteer associations or the minutes of the city council, the same relatively small group of lay Catholic names consistently appeared. These people were vocal, they were active, and they were admired. I discovered a closely knit coterie of movers and shakers prominent in every realm they touched, whether church or business, politics or social clubs, charitable work or military service. In the end, I concentrated on 110 households whose members showed a strikingly distinctive profile as religious and social activists in the community.

While social scientists have demonstrated considerable interest in the study of elites, historians of American religion have largely neglected the role of lay leadership in America's past. As most of us are no doubt aware, after a long period of focus on the clerical hierarchy — paralleling the secular historians' focus on political and military leaders — a new generation of social historians, both religious and secular, have succeeded in turning attention to "ordinary people." This shift has been called an eclipse of "history from the top down" by "history from the bottom up."

My work, however, suggests a third approach: "history from the middle out." In the great leap from pulpit to pew, we seem to have jumped right over the vestry room and the committee table. Yet in this middle space between the clergy and the "masses" — if the story of Savannah's lay leader families is typical — there lies a fascinating world of men and women who have provided a vital connection between the pulpit and the pew, and between the pew and the public as well.

A few Catholic historians have called for a new focus on local lay leadership; most work on the topic so far provides only brief essays with sample biographical sketches collected from various locales. But several social psychological studies have suggested that the most important factors in the development of leadership capability in an individual may well be external rather than internal. If the particulars of an historical setting are in fact the chief catalysts in the crystallization of leaders, simple collections of biography will miss a significant dimension of the subject matter.

What we need are close up studies of local communities that can take into account the matrix of relationships, social and material needs, and even crises that provide lay leaders a place to emerge. Savannah proved to be a rewarding site for such a study. By examining the lay leaders' thoughts and activities as Catholics and citizens, we are able to view up close the way in which one local faith community both adapted itself to its larger cultural environment and maintained its religious identity.

Unfortunately, today we lack the time to examine the details of what I discovered as I researched this community — details that filled 600 pages of a manuscript. My guess is that most of you are less interested in the particulars of my data than in the conceptual framework that emerged from what I learned about Savannah. One conceptual category in particular may be useful for application to other settings, so I'll focus on that, and you can ask for further specifics, if you like, during the time for questions.

So what exactly was accomplished in this half century by the religious and social activism of these lay leaders?

In religious terms, we could mention the devotional societies they formed; the spiritual formation classes they provided; the religious lectures, concerts and missions they sponsored; the churches, convents, parochial schools, charities and cemetery they built and maintained. In social terms, we could point to scores of local voluntary associations that owed their beginnings and much of their shape to the leadership of this group. In political terms, we could note the numerous public offices, both elected and appointed, to which they attained, and the local political parties they helped to found and maintain and through which they helped to mold the local government and its policies. In economic terms, we could tally the millions of dollars they earned and invested, the scores of businesses they established, the numerous labor, business and professional associations they helped create, the many grand homes and commercial buildings they erected. In cultural terms, we could admire the schools they established, the art they created, the music they performed, the essays they wrote and published, the eloquent orations they presented. In a sense, however, all these accomplishments can be viewed as bricks in a single edifice they were building: a community where the triune identity could be successfully achieved.

Identity is actually an element of culture in the sense defined by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, whose analytical categories entered into my study. In his study of social conflict in modern Java, he draws from Eric Wolf's study of the relations between local and national leadership in Mexico, borrowing Wolf's term "cultural brokers" to describe those who mediate between broad traditions and local communities. Some years later, Victor Greene adapted this potentially rich but rather undeveloped concept for his examination of American immigrant leaders, and Suzanne Keller has enriched the discussion with her studies of what she calls "strategic elites." For the purposes of this study, I found such a notion of "cultural mediators," as I prefer to call them, a valuable conceptual category that can in some ways be developed and refined by its application to Savannah's specific historical setting.

In the traditions of the transplanted Irish especially — who were by far the largest ethnic group in Catholic Savannah — we find already functioning a tradition of cultural mediators, local leaders who interpreted the larger world for their followers. In Ireland that person had often been the priest — sometimes the only literate person in a village — who had customarily read Scripture, newspapers and even personal letters for his parishioners, helping them understand and respond to what was written or printed. On this side of the ocean, the Irish tended to lean heavily on community leaders for similar guidance. Even when they could read and write for themselves, they typically looked to people further up the social scale for advice or assistance: not only to priests, but also to doctors, lawyers, school teachers, journalists, bankers, landlords, successful merchants, neighborhood shopkeepers and barkeepers, and local politicians. These influential occupations were represented in all but two of the families on which I focused my study.

My conclusion after sorting through many thousands of documents was this: In the years between 1820 and 1870, this group of Catholic lay leaders — once referred to by a writer in the Miscellany as an "aristocracy of the heart" — performed a critical cultural role in Savannah. Through their myriad activities in the religious, social, economic, civic, and political realms of the city's life that we have already noted — all of which were important achievements in themselves — they became indispensable cultural mediators who stood between various segments of the community and conveyed between those groups important messages about what it meant to be Catholic, American, and Southern. This conveyance of culture can be understood in several dimensions.

The first dimension of this mediation to recognize is its content. Savannah's Catholic lay leaders participated in and conveyed messages about three broad cultural traditions: the Catholic religious tradition, the American civic tradition, and the Southern social tradition. They were all at least familiar with the Catholic tradition when they came to this country, though they often received some religious training after they arrived. In addition, they had to learn many aspects of the American and Southern traditions after they reached the New World. At the same time, some elements of these three traditions stood in tension with one another, so they had to learn how to negotiate the resulting cultural conflicts. Having learned the cultural content of these three traditions, they were able to communicate it to certain segments of the rest of their community.

The second dimension of this mediation, its function, was threefold. First, lay leaders mediated in the sense that they represented important aspects of the Catholic, American, and Southern cultures for other members of the community. That is, they were collective symbols that embodied, that gave concrete expression to, certain cultural elements in a way that kept the cultures alive and attractive. Second, lay leaders were mediators in the sense that they interpreted aspects of their three cultures for others. As collective voices of their community, they sought to explain certain cultural elements, to educate others about them, and to correct misundertandings about them. Third, lay leaders were mediators in the sense that they created for others opportunities with cultural significance. As collective agents of their communities, they orchestrated situations and they organized and managed institutions that allowed others to join them as cultural symbols, voices, and agents.

A final dimension of this cultural mediation was its location. First, Catholic lay leaders stood in one sense between the clergy and the rest of the Catholic community. The bishops and priests formed a class of intellectual elites whose goal was to communicate the Church's tradition to their flock, which included a number of so-called "Hickory Catholics" — their nickname for those with only a nominal commitment to the faith. The lay leadership in Savannah overwhelmingly affirmed their religious tradition and took part in communicating it to the rest of the Catholic community. This mediation was especially important because laypeople had certain kinds of access to the community that the clergy did not; and though the clergy could be ignored by some as professionals who were paid to be "religious," laypeople could not be so easily dismissed.

A second mediating location was assumed by Catholic lay leaders in Savannah: They also stood between the Catholic community and the larger non Catholic community. Here, the mediation ran in both directions. On the one hand, lay leaders communicated the American and Southern traditions to the new immigrants. Those who had "gotten off the boat" early used their experience to help later arrivals, not just to survive, but to understand, to embrace, and to thrive in their new setting. As pioneers in assimilation to southern American society, the economic and social successes of these prominent Catholics served as an example and encouragement to those still working toward that goal.

On the other hand, Catholic lay leaders communicated the Catholic tradition to the non Catholic community. They explicitly and often eloquently interpreted something of what it meant to be Catholic to those whose knowledge of Catholic faith and practice was minimal and whose rumors about their "Romish" neighbors were often quite fanciful. These Catholic leaders also eroded religious stereotypes by serving as counterexamples to those whose behavior had given Catholic faith a bad reputation.

None of this is to say that St. John's lay leaders succeeded, or even attempted, to convert all of Savannah's Catholics into zealous believers and exemplary citizens or the city's non-Catholics into Catholics. When we say, then, that these lay leaders were cultural mediators, we mean this: They were messengers of the Catholic, American, and Southern cultures to the Savannah community. The cultural elements they conveyed as collective symbols, voices, and agents were messages that could provoke a variety of responses.

Some people received the messages enthusiastically. Others paid attention but made a less clear response. Still others misunderstood, ignored, or explicitly rejected the messages they conveyed. Those who were not engaged by their messages might even have been more than those who were. But to the extent that Catholics in nineteenth century Savannah did in fact remain religiously distinctive and become socially assimilated, they did so in large part because of the example and the achievements of these 110 lay leader households over a critical period of fifty years.

Let's take just one rather typical example from among this "aristocracy of the heart," a brawny and charismatic Irishman named John McMahon. McMahon was born in 1815 in County Clare, Ireland, and as a young boy emigrated with his parents to New Brunswick. He came to Savannah in 1836 to work in a shoe factory, and before long he landed a position in the management of the City Hotel, the principal hostelry of the city, where he began to make many good friends in well-connected places. He soon became proprietor of the hotel, and then used his considerable entrepreneurial skills to establish a series of successful concerns such as a wholesale grocery and a feed and seed store. He later established himself as a factor — one of the more high-status occupations in antebellum Savannah — and eventually crowned his long business career as a founder, along with several other Catholic laymen, of the Southern Bank of the State of Georgia. His position as vice-president and manager of that concern only enhanced his considerable professional status, and before long "McMahon's bank," as it was called by the local folks, was an important player in the commercial life of the city. McMahon's vocational success was reflected in his fine home in the fashionable district of town, his accumulation of other real estate, his numerous slaves, his extensive personal library, his yacht, and all the other accoutrements of the wealthy urban Southerner of his day.

McMahon was early on a member of the Irish Jasper Greens, a local volunteer military company composed of transplanted Irishmen, where he easily rose to the rank of captain. He led this company off to take part in the War with Mexico in 1846 and returned to a hero's welcome. When the "War of Northern Aggression" broke out, he led his company in the occupation of the local Federal fort and spent time in New York as a prisoner of war after the fort fell to Union troops.

McMahon was a principle in several other voluntary associations as well: He was a long-time president of the prestigious Hibernian Society, a member of the Phoenix Riflemen, and on the executive committee of the Association of the Friends of Ireland. Other groups he helped to head up were devoted to charitable purposes: He belonged to the Union Society, which raised funds to support the local orphanage; he was chairman and treasurer of the Irish Relief Society, and during the Civil War, he chaired the local Soldier's Relief Association.

In the political realm, McMahon was a city alderman and occasionally mayor pro tem. He was elected to the local board of education and served as a school commissioner who annually inspected the public schools. As chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee for the city, he took part in nominating that party's candidates for office, and he was involved at the national level of the party as well.

Finally, McMahon exercised his leadership gifts in the religious sphere. He gave most of the land for the church to build the new Catholic cemetery and then chaired the committee to fence and beautify it. He was President of the Catholic Cathedral Association and chairman of the committee that built the grand neo-Gothic cathedral gracing Savannah's skyline. He was one of the founders of the Catholic Library Association, which provided a reading room where Savannah's citizens could browse Catholic literature. He was a generous supporter of every Catholic charity in the city, especially the St. Mary's Home for Girls, and he was always one of the leaders chosen to organize collections for national and international Catholic causes, such as the legal defense of England's John Henry Newman, or the amelioration of financial crisis at the Vatican.

I could say much more about this Irishman, but suffice it to say that when he died, quite eloquent and moving testimonies to his life poured in from every quarter: the church, the business community, the secular newspapers, the Irish associations, the charities of the city, the military companies. His funeral, said the local newspaper, was one of the largest and best attended the city had ever seen.

Now I think it should be clear even from this brief summary of McMahon's life how he illustrates the role of the "cultural mediator" that I am describing. When, for example, we read what his soldiers on the way to Mexico had to say about him, we find some indicators of the influence he exerted on those around him. Writing home to the Savannah newspaper, one of the Irish Jasper Greens noted: "I doubt if there be a more popular officer in the regiment, or one who, because of his prudence, character, and consideration, possesses a more abundant power to command." No wonder, then, that several weeks later, when McMahon marched his whole company to the Catholic Church for Mass on Sunday morning, the Jasper Greens felt a sense of pride: Under McMahon's leadership, as one said, they were "testifying their respect for religion, and proving to all that soldiers should not blush to bend the knee to their Creator."

That day, McMahon was acting as a collective symbol — an incarnate ideal, an icon of Savannah's Irish Catholic community. McMahon, and all the men with him, were proudly Catholic, proudly American, and — as was later evident after they had a run-in with a company of brash Yankees from Illinois — proudly Southern. On this as on so many other occasions, McMahon sent a message, loud and clear: to his fellow Catholics, that attendance at Mass was the right thing for a Catholic to do; to his fellow immigrants, that patriotism expressed through military service was part of being an American and a Southerner; and to his fellow Savannians, that "Romish" immigrants could be loyal Catholics, loyal Americans and loyal Southerners all at the same time. It was the same message communicated by the grand statue of Seargent William Jasper, a Catholic Irishman who had given his life in the battle of Savannah to protect the city against the British in the Revolutionary War. McMahon was the president of the Jasper Monumental Association, which commissioned the work, paid for it, and had it erected in a prominent location downtown as a symbol of local Catholic pride.

Nor was McMahon only a collective symbol. We see his role as a collective voice, for example, in 1860 when he chaired a "grand mass meeting" of the local Catholic community condemning the actions of Victor Emmanuel and the Red Republican Army in Italy against Pope Pius IX. On that occasion he helped to draft a public resolution on behalf of the congregation expressing its outrage and had it published in Catholic papers around the country.

McMahon acted as a collective agent of the Catholic community when he directed the building of its cathedral — a grand statement of Catholic respectability in itself — but he performed a similar function in countless other ways. For example, as an alderman he led a committee of the city council that arranged for the city government to pay for the care of paupers at the city hospital — many, perhaps most, of whom were his fellow Catholic immigrants.

I could cite so many other examples, even from this one man's life, but I think you get the picture. Multiply McMahon by several hundred, and you can see how these lay leaders were shaping the identity of their community.

When we compare as a whole the Savannah of 1820 to the Savannah of 1870, the changes we observe in the Catholic community demonstrate just how impressive were the achievements of this leadership network.

In 1820, Catholics in Savannah gathered weekly in a small wooden chapel on the poorer western edge of town. They had no Catholic associations for the purposes of devotional life or moral improvement. They had no church related institutions to provide for education, charity, or the religious life. As a group, they were nearly invisible to the wider community, and the distinctive beliefs and practices of their communion were held largely in disdain in the public culture.

Half a century later, however, the differences were striking. Catholics in Savannah worshipped in two much larger and more respectable churches, and they were collecting funds to build the grand new Neo Gothic cathedral. They enjoyed the benefits of two convents, two free schools, two convent related schools, and two orphanages, and they were making plans for a hospital. At least twenty one Catholic sodalities and other associations were operating to strengthen the faith and improve the morals of what was now two parishes. As a religious community, they had gained a high profile in the city's public culture as charitable, civic minded, respectable citizens whose distinctive beliefs and practices formed an accepted part of the local mosaic of religion. The persistent labors and the compelling personal example of this group of lay leaders had been instrumental and indispensable in all these changes in Savannah's Catholic community. They raised the funds, founded the associations, supported the institutions, wrote for the newspapers, broke the stereotypes. As one Catholic Savannahian observed, all these "pious works" were "the offspring of [the] faith and devotion" of the flock's lay leaders.

Viewing the wider picture of life in the city, we find that much of what had changed in Savannah outside the Catholic Church had also been shaped by Catholic lay leaders. In 1820, only a few Catholics had made their way into the realms of public service and polished culture. Fewer still had joined the ranks of influential merchants and elected officials. Professional, business, and labor organizations were nearly non existent for Catholics and non Catholics alike. Internal improvements such as canals, railroads, and paved roads were lacking. There were few banks and no mutual loan associations. The city had only one fire company and three volunteer military companies; there was no uniformed police force, board of public health, or board of public education. Only two ethnic societies and a handful of charitable, recreational, and cultural associations were in operation.

By 1870, that picture had changed drastically. Individual Catholic lay leaders had gained widespread respect and were wielding considerable influence in the commercial, professional, and labor communities — not just because of their financial success, but also because of the many work related associations they had helped to establish. They also sat on the directing boards for railroads, banks, mutual loan associations, internal improvement projects, and other corporate entities, a number of which they themselves had created.

In the political realm that year, five Catholic layleaders served as aldermen, and numerous Catholic layleaders held less conspicuous government positions, both elected and appointed. As bosses and recruiters of both local political parties, Catholic leaders had taken part in shaping those organizations. They were members and officers of the police force, the board of health, and the board of education. The city now had nine volunteer military companies (many more had been organized solely for the war) and as many volunteer fire companies; Catholic layleaders had founded many of these and were serving them as officers. Finally, dozens of ethnic, charitable, recreational, and cultural associations were thriving in the city, and in the founding and managing of many of these, Catholic lay leaders were instrumental.

Through all these accomplishments, Catholic lay leaders in Savannah built for themselves and their fellow parishioners a home where they could think, speak, and act confidently as Catholics, Americans, and Southerners. The creation of Catholic public schools in 1870 said to them and to their non Catholic neighbors that they had accomplished to a striking degree the goal of religious distinctiveness and social assimilation in a society that was still overwhelmingly non Catholic.

We should not fail to note, of course, that there were tensions between the Southern and the other two aspects of their triune identity. During the period under study, to be integrated into a deeply racist and slaveholding society frayed the moral edges of Catholic identity and undermined the foundations of American identity. The achievement of assimilation thus had its price: When the Savannah Plan went into effect in 1870, the students who attended the Catholic sisters' African-American academy were still not welcome in either the public or the other Catholic schools. In important ways, then, for these lay leaders, regional loyalty trumped both religious faith and national patriotism.

That shadow undeniably falls across the picture of what they achieved, but it must not be allowed to overshadow it. When most Catholic children in Savannah went off to school in 1870, they could learn to say the rosary with their classmates; they could be taught civic virtues from non sectarian textbooks paid for by their parents' taxes; and they could do both without fear that their non Catholic neighbors would burn the schoolhouse down. In nineteenth century America, that was a rare and precious opportunity. For such a legacy and all it represented, Savannah's Catholics could look with gratitude to an array of lay leaders who had shown themselves to be — both in the church and in the wider community — a colorful, extraordinary "aristocracy of the heart."