Mexico’s Forgotten Pain: The Persecution of Catholics and the Cristero War

The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on display in Mexico City’s Basilica de Guadalupe

Mexico is a nation with a very strong Catholic identity, yet for over 70 years during the 20th century the Catholic Church was actually outlawed: not allowed to own property, run schools, convents or monasteries, have more than a certain number of priests (and no foreign priests), nor defend itself publicly or in the courts. It was hardly allowed to exist. According to historian Jim Tuck, “This was not separation of church and state: it was complete subordination of church to state”.

Following 1940, enforcement of these restrictions gradually lessened, but it was not until 1992 that the Church was restored as a legal entity in Mexico. During the period of the strictest enforcement of these draconian laws beginning with the rule of President Calles in the late 1920s, Mexicans were often imprisoned for wearing religious items, saying “Adios” in public (which literally means “with God”), or even questioning the laws. Public worship was a crime punishable by hanging or firing squad. (In fact, this week – May 21 – was the feast day of 25 Mexican saints and martyrs who remained true to their faith during these turbulent years and were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Another 13 martyrs were canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, including young José Luis Sánchez del Río. Perhaps the most well-known modern Mexican martyr, however, is Blessed Fr. Miguel Pro, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.)

The relics of the seven Mexican Knights of Columbus member priests martyred during the Cristero War were on display at Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Houston in April. You can see them at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral on June 2-3, 2012. (Click the photo for more info) Portrait of the priests by artist Martha Orozco. Photo by the Knights of Columbus.

For a nation that was 95% Catholic, this was a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Yet modern Mexico – and the world – has largely forgotten the suffering that took place in the years 1926-1929. Known as the Cristero War or Cristero Rebellion (La Cristiada in Spanish), this period was, according to historian Donald Mabry, “a virulent anticlericalism [attack on the Church] that has seldom been surpassed in any other country”. With such a severe restriction of their liberties, the Mexican people were forced to react. After a decree that required the registration of priests and the confiscation of church property, the Catholic bishops of Mexico made the decision to close the churches and go underground. It was during this time that armed rebellion first broke out against the government. “Mexico rose in arms to shouts of ‘Viva Cristo Rey!'” writes historian Jürgen Buchenau. “Thus began the Cristero Rebellion, which eventually grew to 50,000 soldiers, or a force almost as large as the federal army.”

Mexicans taking up arms to defend their rights during the Cristero Rebellion. Notice the flag with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s beloved patroness.

The story of the Cristero soldiers and their fight for liberty is told dramatically in a new movie to be released in theaters in the U.S. on June 1st. For Greater Glory tells the largely forgotten tale of this painful time in recent Mexican history. The movie is the first major motion picture for director Pablo José Barroso, a businessman turned director of faith-based films. According to Barroso, “This is not only another Hollywood movie; it’s a movie of standing up for what you believe; it’s a… spiritual journey.” The film seeks to recreate interest in this terrible period in Mexican history, which is surprisingly little known even in Mexico (where the film debuted in April as Cristiada). Barroso hopes that through this movie he will be able to accurately depict the violence that Mexican Catholics suffered (the movie is rated R for war violence and disturbing images).

This new movie tells the story of Mexico’s Cristero period through the eyes of its main character, an unlikely hero who takes up the fight for religious freedom.

The impact of the Cristero War was felt not only throughout Mexico, but also in the United States, as waves of Mexican immigrants sought to escape the violence of their homeland. The exodus from Mexico’s west-central region was particularly great. Historian Julia Young writes in the Catholic Historical Review, “Of all the causes for the marked rise in emigration out of Mexico’s west-central states during the 1920s, it was the devastation wrought by the Cristero War that reinforced and solidified these trends during the latter part of the decade.” In the year 1928, for example, the Mexican government targeted this region with a campaign aimed to evacuate residents, then pillage and bomb their towns. Eyewitness Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez describes the aftermath of such an attack against the town of San Jose de Gracia in Michoacan: “a place of roofless walls and rubble, ashes, and charcoal, with green grass sprouting in the street and on garden walls, and soot everywhere. The only sound was the howling of starving cats.”  After this type of devastation, many smaller villages never recovered and remain ghost towns today.

Bishop Emanuel Palomar Azpeitin of Tepic, Mexico returning to his homeland in 1929 with 27 of his fellow priests. They, along with many other priests, had been deported in 1926 by the Mexican government and lived for three years in Los Angeles, California.

With access to Mexico’s new railway infrastructure, Mexican citizens left their war-torn country in droves. They not only settled in the previously traditional migrant areas of southern California, Texas and the rest of the southwest, but also began to make their way to other parts of the U.S. that had previously had few Mexican immigrants: the midwest, for example.

Map of Mexican Ethnic Distribution in the United States created by the Pacific Coast Immigration Museum. (Click on photo for their webpage)

If you have Catholic ancestors who lived in or emigrated from Mexico during the Cristero period and would like to learn more, it is difficult to find much information on the internet. However, these links may help to give you a basic understanding of this largely unknown period in Mexican history, help you learn more about its impact on your family, and get you started tracing your Mexican family tree.

About the Cristero War – Online Reading

About the Cristero War – Books

About the movie, “For Greater Glory”

In search of your Mexican family history


A very special thank-you to two high school students whose research into 1920s Mexico was a big help to me in preparing this article. Their historical exhibit received honors within this year’s National History Day competition.

Assumption Sisters in the 1940 U.S. Census

Here are the names of the Felician Sisters that were assigned to the parish of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Detroit, Michigan at the time of the 1940 U.S. Census.

Mary Dombrowska (Head), age 42, born in Ohio.
Anthonina Parz, age 73, born in Poland.
Petronella Kosmecko, age 55, born in Poland.
Pauline Cichs, age 53, born in Michigan.
Frances Strugarek, age 53, born in Poland.
Anastasia Gatza, age 48, born in Michigan.
Anna Nowak, age 45, born in Ohio.
Veronica Zawodna, age 48, born in Ohio.
Sophie Grabowska, age 46, born in Michigan.
Mary Dembowska, age 43, born in Ohio.
Helen Szczepanska, age 42, born in Michigan.
Anna Bodalska, age 29, born in Pennsylvania.
Bernice Konwinska, age 33, born in Michigan.
Mary Gersztyn, age 28, born in New Jersey.
Regina Blaszczak, age 28, born in Pennsylvania.
Genevieve Konopka, age 24, born in Michigan.
Loretta Korkus, age 25, born in Michigan.
Helen Polakowski, age 22, Pennsylvania.
Hedwig Witalec, age 24, born in Michigan.
Frances Markowska, age 21, born in Michigan.
Loraine Sitkiewicz, age 52, born in Poland.

I want their names to get out there, appearing in search engines across the Internet. It’s been my experience that nuns were often the forgot lot among those who chose a religious life. When I look back on the 25th and 50th Jubilee books for Assumption parish (published in 1937 and 1962 respectively), I find that the priests had full page portrait photos with their names as captions (not just the current priests but the previous as well) but the nuns had no photos or names at all in the 25th Jubilee book and only photos with the children in their classrooms in the 50th Jubilee book. Their names were not included. It’s almost as if they took vows of not only poverty and chastity but of invisibility as well. I find that very sad as they worked every bit as hard as the priests. Yet little mention of them was made in commemorative publications.

Assumption Sisters in the 1940 U.S. Census

I wish these circumstances were only true for Assumption parish, but sadly that’s not the case. I have 14 parish jubilee books and the lack of photos/names of the good sisters from those parishes is all too common. They just never seem to have gotten the billing that the priests, the choir, the Rosary Society members, those making their first Holy Communion, the Holy Name Society, the Altar Boys, etc. got. So I’m glad to see their names in the 1940 U.S. Census and I’m happy to extract those names here for their family members to find.

St. Wojciech, First Patron Saint of Poland

By Rev. Mark A. Borkowski

Today, Monday, April 23rd, is the feast of St. Wojciech/Adalbert, who is revered as one of Poland’s oldest saints and in fact one of the great patron saints of the Polish nation. He is a saint also of great importance to us, Polish-Americans of the Archdiocese of Detroit, because the very first Polish parish in the city of Detroit was placed from its very beginning under the protections and patronage of St. Wojciech. Wojciech was born of a noble family in Bohemia in 956, ten ears before Poland became a Christian nation with the baptism of King Mieszko the first bishop of Magdeburg. It should also be noted that Adalbert and Wojciech are two different names, not the Latin and Polish equivalents of the same name! The name Wojciech in Slavonic means “Help of the army.” The English name of Detroit’s first Polish parish “Albertus” was the name mistakenly given to the church at the time of its dedication. Albertus is the Latin form of Abert. This mistake was never corrected in the 117 year history of the parish, which closed in 1989.

As a child, Wojciech was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin by his parents who feared losing him to sickness. They promised the Virgin that Wojciech would live under her patronage with the clergy. Wojciech received an excellent education at the cathedral school of Magdeburg. In 982 he was ordained a subdeacon by the bishop of Prague. Though only 27 years of age, he was elected bishop  of Prague in 983, after the sudden death of the previous bishop. Wojciech entered the city of Prague barefoot as a symbol of his humility. He was received with enthusiasm by Boleslaus II, prince of Bohemia, and all the people of that city. He proceeded to reorganize the diocese but was saddened to learn of the religious state of his flock. Most were Christian in name only. He withdrew to Rome in 990 but returned to Prague in 994 at the insistence of Pope John XV. Again he encountered difficulties and a refusal to accept the true gospel in Prague, which caused him to withdraw from Prague to Rome. Once again the Pope, Gregory V at this time, ordered him back to Prague.

The people of Prague, however, refused to admit Wojciech to the diocese and so he turned his attention to the conversion of Poland (Pomerania) to Christianity as a missionary. He made converts at Gdansk but later met with scorn as he and his companions were accused of being spies.

On April 23rd, 997, he and his companions were martyred near Krolewiec by being beaten to death with oars. After severing his head and fixing it on a pole which was carried throughout the village, his body was thrown into the Nogat River, a tributary of the Wistula, and washed up on the Polish coast. The body was held for ransom by heathens who received a small fortune, the weight of the body in gold, from Boleslaus, Duke of Poland, for its return. Later in 998 his body was enshrined in Gniezno; some of his relics, however, were returned by force to Prague in 1039. Adalbert was canonized a saint in the year 1000.

When St. Albertus parish was organized by the St. Stanislaus Kostka Society (a group of Polish immigrants attending the nearby German St. Joseph Church) they chose the Bohemian born St. Adalbert/Wojciech as their patron. The date of the meeting of organization of the new parish was April 23rd, 1870, the feast of St. Wojciech. He was a fitting choice for patron as many of the early parishioners of the Church had come from that area of Poland known as Pomerania and Poznania where St. Wojciech had ministered. They were known as Kaszubs and spoke a dialect of Polish heavily influenced by the German language.

Wojciech was the first great adopted patron of the Christian Polish nation. He had been venerated for over eight centuries as Protector of the Poles when he was selected to be the patron of Detroit’s first Polish parish which was primarily composed of Kaszubs.

When the first St. Albertus Church was dedicated on Sunday, July14th, 1872, the name of the patron was inadequately translated from the Latin Adalbertus to the English Albertus, thus forever identifying Detroit’s first Polish parish by the misnomer Albertus. Such is life! For better or worse, the Mother Church of the Detroit Polonia is known, at least in English, as St. Albertus.

[Many thanks to Rev. Mark A. Borkowski, Associate Pastor, Ss Peter & Paul Catholic Church, Detroit, Michigan, who was kind enough to allow me to share his article with you.]

Rev. Mark Borkowski celebrating Mass on the feast day of St Wojciech

I have several family ties to St Wojciech and his feast day.

  • I am Polish and he was the first patron saint of Poland.
  • My great grandparents, Szymon and Ludwika Lipa were members of St. Albertus parish in Detroit when they first immigrated to the U.S. Some of my grandaunts and uncles were baptized and buried from that parish as well.
  • Although I was never a member of that parish myself, I created a website for the parish and served as webmaster for several years.
  • I have numerous Granduncles and a couple grandfathers named for St Wojciech.
  • My mother, who always held her Polish heritage near and dear to her heart, died on this day in 2007.

I had intended to write about St. Wojciech in honor of his feast day today but when I read the very nice article Fr. Borkowski had written I knew I could do no better.

Holy Thursday Traditions

I love traditions.  While I enjoy surprises, spontaneity, and serendipity, there is something comforting about doing the same thing at the same time year after year.  My family wasn’t big on traditions though, as much as I loved them.  That might be partly why I love my Catholic faith – the rituals and customs offer a sense of peace, comfort, and belonging – comfort food for my soul.

Daily routine is always labeled as boring, but something that is done less frequently, like once a year, becomes special.  It becomes tradition!  Every year, I know what I will be doing on Holy Thursday evening.  I don’t necessarily know where I will be, but I am certain of who I will be with and what we will be doing.  Because it’s a 30-year-old tradition!

This week is what is known in the Christian world as “Holy Week” – a remembrance of the final week of Jesus’ life.  While all of the events of the week are important, especially the commemoration of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the traditions of Holy Thursday have always held a special place in my heart.  The Mass that is held on the evening of Holy Thursday is different from other Masses held throughout the year.  While every Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper, on Holy Thursday we remember the institution of both the Eucharist and the priesthood in a very special way. We sing the beautiful Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo as the Eurcharist is processed around the church. The Mass does not end in the usual way, but the altar is stripped bare and the Eucharist is reposed in a special side altar where it will remain until Mass is once again celebrated on Holy Saturday.

In some cultures, it became customary to visit churches on Holy Thursday evening after Mass.  The reason for the visits is to spend time in prayer in commemoration of Jesus’ night in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane.  The act of visiting churches probably originated in Rome many years ago as a form of a pilgrimage.  How many churches should be visited?  Most cultures say 7 churches, which is quite possible if you live in a large city.  But time constraints usually held us to 3 – most churches now close at midnight or earlier so it is no longer possible to spend the night visiting churches.

This tradition in my life began when I was in high school.  It was 1982, and my friend Lou and I were 15 years old.  After the Mass that evening, the young priest at our parish and the nun that we helped at school asked if we would like to accompany them to visit a few churches.  Little did we know then that it was the start of a yearly tradition.  After high school, Lou entered the seminary and eventually was ordained a priest himself, so he did not continue the visits with us each year.  But other than a few years here and there, the three of us continued our tradition.

Because our practice itself became routine, it is the years that I broke with tradition that stand out in my memory.  One year Lou and I joined a friend and another parish priest, and we drove to a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has three big, beautiful, old churches all within two blocks of each other.  One of the three churches was St. Adalbert’s, and I was happy to visit there since I knew it was where my grandparents were married.  Since this was before my genealogy passion began, I did not know was that my great-grandfather was one of St. Adalbert’s founding parishioners.  During our visit, two men and two women broke the silence with song. They were professionally trained singers, and their spontaneous hymn was in beautiful 4-part harmony.  I remember little else about that night, but I can still remember being in awe at their song of praise.

In 2006, I was in Rome for Holy Thursday.  What a place to be – I could have visited a hundred churches that night!  They were all open, and lit candles lined the entrances to beckon you to enter.  We walked without a plan and quickly found several churches.  Some were famous, while others were small and not usually visited by tourists.  I don’t even remember the names of the places we visited, but the experience was special.  Even though I was far from my “traditional” friends, I was happy that I found other friends that wanted to share the experience.

There have been one or two other exceptions to the rule but aside from these few instances every other year – for the last 30 years – my “original” touring company continues the tradition.  When we gather after Mass, the first question is usually “Where are we going this year?”  A church name is suggested.  “Didn’t we go there last year?” It’s an amusing task to decide where to go, because we can never remember where we went year after year.

We have been to many churches more than once.  Every year we say we should write down our “picks” for the year, but we never do, and it’s more fun to argue about where we’ve been and haven’t been.  Over the decades, we have been to just about every church in Northeast Philadelphia (more than once) and a good portion of Lower Bucks County.  When Father was made a pastor in Delaware county, I’d pick up Sister and trek down that way for Mass, and we found a whole new cache of churches to visit.  And yet there are still many in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that we have not yet seen.

Our tradition isn’t all pious, however – part of what makes the evening enjoyable is the company.  Some years, when life got in the way, it was the first time we had seen each other since the previous Holy Thursday.  Occasionally one of the three of us had to miss due to illness or other commitments, but the remaining two continued on schedule.  After our visits, we go out to eat (before the Good Friday fast begins) and catch up on each other’s lives and memories.

If you’ve never participated in the custom of visiting churches on Holy Thursday evening, consider starting your own tradition tonight!

Seeking the Flock of St. Patrick: Researching Catholic Ancestors in Ireland

The people of Ireland have long been proud of their Catholic heritage. Their beloved St. Patrick, whose feast day we celebrate today, brought Christianity to the pagan peoples of his adopted homeland. Ireland has never looked back. In honor of St. Patrick and the Catholic faith of many of the Irish people, The Catholic Gene focuses today on searching for ancestors in Irish Catholic records.

Irish genealogy can be a difficult task to begin – particularly for those whose ancestors emigrated generations back. The first step in the process is to work with all available records for all known ancestors (and their family members) in your own country. Before you can even begin to do research in Ireland, you have to be able to focus in on the town and/or townland from which your ancestors hailed. For many of us, that location can take years to discover. Once you do make that breakthrough, however, there are a number of strategies for beginning a successful search for ancestors using Irish records.

The records of Ireland’s Roman Catholic churches can be the best starting point and can play an important role in that search. Many a beginner seeking their Irish family tree has been disheartened by the news of the 1922 fire which destroyed all of the civil records (administrative, court and probate) that had been collected nationwide and stored at the Public Record Office of Ireland (some dating back to the 13th century). Thankfully, in the majority of cases, Roman Catholic registers were kept in individual parishes and did not suffer a catastrophic loss similar to the loss of civil records. They are, therefore, a much more comprehensive resource for the genealogist researching in Ireland.

Before civil registration extended to all of the country in 1864, church records were the only registries to record family information. Although the Church of Ireland had a presence in the country, the majority of the people were Roman Catholic, and those Church records are important to many in their search for Irish roots. Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church faced severe persecution by the state, and accurate record-keeping was not always in the best interests of the Catholic faithful. It is difficult, therefore, to find Catholic parish registers dated earlier than the 1820s. However, records can be found as far back as the 1680s in urban areas and in anglicized regions in the eastern half of Ireland, though they are rare.

Old Irish gravestones in Drumragh Graveyard

Irish Roman Catholic records with genealogical interest come in both the Latin and English languages (very rarely Irish) and are primarily limited to baptismal and marriage records. Unfortunately, burial registers for Roman Catholics are difficult to come by, and those that do exist are typically found in the northern half of the country. An interesting sidenote regarding burials in Ireland: Irish gravestones today represent only 1% of the population, so don’t count on finding too many ancestors’ gravestones in a local Catholic cemetery.

The good news is that not only do some of the local parishes allow access to their records, but the National Library of Ireland has copies of almost all of the surviving registers from Irish Catholic parishes throughout the island dated earlier than 1880. (The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland has microfilmed copies for Ulster Province and some other areas.) Even the records of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly (which were restricted from access to researchers for sixteen years) are now accessible to family historians.

If you cannot make the trip to the National Library of Ireland yourself, try searching the LDS Family History Library Catalog. Approximately 40% of the Irish Roman Catholic Church registers have been microfilmed by the LDS – maybe you’ll find that your ancestors’ parish is within that group.

Another great resource for Irish Catholic records is the strong network of heritage centers located in each county of Ireland. Visit the Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website for information about county heritage centers throughout the island. The site features a map indicating each heritage center by county with links to a searchable index for each heritage center with an online presence (which is most of them). The first ten searches are free, but the website’s user account credit system charges a small fee for additional searches.  There is an additional fee to access records.

For a good start at learning which records might be available for your ancestors and where they might be located, visit the Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland.

An Irish Genealogical Researcher’s Pot of Gold

The Irish diaspora throughout the world continues to keep alive a worldwide interest in Irish culture and genealogy. Thanks to strong loyalty to their ancestral land, there is a wealth of resources available to those researching their roots in the Emerald Isle.

St. Vincent’s Catholic Church, Kerry, Ireland

If you are beginning work on your Irish family tree, or you are well into the lifelong search we call genealogy, you may find the following websites and resources helpful:
Family Search’s wiki resource page on Ireland
Irish Times’ Roman Catholic Records map of Ireland
National Library of Ireland (NLI)
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
• Irish Family History Foundation’s Roots Ireland website
• Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy Toolkit

Good books that can aid you in your search for Irish genealogy in Roman Catholic records include:
Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham (updated 4th edition will be published on March 30, 2012)
Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History by James Ryan
How to Trace Your Irish Ancestors by Ian Maxwell
A Guide to Irish Parish Registers by Brian Mitchell
Guide to Irish Churches and Graveyards by Brian Mitchell

There are many well-written blogs which focus on Irish genealogy. Some of my favorites include:
• Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman’s ‘On a flesh and bone foundation:’ An Irish History
Donna Moughty’s Genealogy Blog
• Deborah Large Fox’ Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors

You might also enjoy my own two Irish genealogy blogs: Small-leaved Shamrock and A light that shines again.

Cathedral of St. Colman in Cobh, Ireland

Article 2 of the Irish constitution states: “The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” On this St. Patrick’s Day, as you wear your green and take pride in your family’s ties to Ireland, The Catholic Gene – and this half-Irish author – wish you the luck of the Irish upon your genealogical search.

The Archdiocese of Detroit and My Family History

St Albertus Church

There has been a Catholic presence in the city of Detroit since the parish of Ste Anne was founded in 1701. The city was first made a part of the Diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky in 1808 and then it became a part of the Diocese of Cincinnati in 1821. Pope Leo XII named Detroit as a diocese in 1827 but for some reason his proclamation was not implemented. Once again, in 1833, Detroit was made a diocese with Father Frederick Rese as it’s first bishop and Ste Anne as it’s first cathedral. March 8, 1833, was the official date that the Diocese of Detroit was founded. That was 179 years ago today. The territory of that initial diocese included all of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas east of the Mississippi River.

When Michigan officially became a state in 1837, the boundaries of the diocese were realigned to match the state boundaries. As of 1841, the Diocese of Detroit had 18 priests, 30 churches, and some 24,000 Catholics. The population continued to grow and many new churches sprang up around the state. The densest population center continued to be the city of Detroit. In 1853 the upper peninsula became a vicariate.

By 1870, the Diocese of Detroit had 88 priests, 80 churches, and 150,000 Catholics. The following year, in 1871, Detroit’s Polish immigrants petitioned Bishop Borgess for a church of their own. Permission was granted and the first Polish Catholic church, St Albertus, was founded in the area known as “Poletown”. When my great grandparents, Szymon and Ludwika Lipa, first arrived in the U.S. from Poland (1881) they became members of St Albertus parish. Their first American-born child, Stanislaw, who was born on March 8, 1882 – 49 years to the day after the founding of the Diocese of Detroit, was baptized there.

As more and more Polish immigrants came to Detroit they settled primarily in two different areas of the city, one on the east side, Poletown, and one on the west side. It didn’t take long before the Poles living on the west side wanted a church of their own so as not to have to travel all across the city to hear Mass said in their native language. In 1882 the second Polish Catholic church in Detroit was founded. That was St Casimir. The communities of Polish immigrants continued to grow and flourish and the third and fourth Polish parishes were founded in 1886, Sweetest Heart of Mary (east side) and St Francis D’Assisi (west side). A fifth Polish parish was founded shortly thereafter in 1889, St Josaphat (east side).

The entire Diocese of Detroit was growing as immigrants continued to flood the city. The population swelled and so did the churches. My maternal grandparents arrived here in 1912 and 1913. Many more Polish Catholic churches were founded in the years just before and well into the new century. Some of the parishes my family were members of included Sweetest Heart of Mary (1886), St Francies D’ Assisi (1886), St Josaphat (1889), St Hedwig (1903), St Hyacinth (1907), Assumption BVM (1911), St Andrew (1920), and Sts Peter and Paul (1923).

On May 22, 1937 Detroit was elevated to an Archdiocese and Edward Francis Mooney was named as the first Archbishop. At that point the Archdiocese had more than 800 priests, 345 parishes, serving 602,000 Catholics. This would later become known as the “Golden Era” for the Archdiocese of Detroit, when the pews were packed to the point of standing room only for many Masses. That same year the makeup of the Archdiocese was changed as Lansing became a diocese and Grand Rapids and Marquette were made suffragan dioceses. The following year, in 1938, the Diocese of Saginaw was formed.

It was in the 1940s, during WWII, that the first expressways were built in Detroit. More followed in the 1950s. Those major thoroughfares cut through many parish neighborhoods as they were being constructed. Some historians point to those first expressways as the beginning of the decline of some of the Catholic parishes in the city of Detroit. As homes were bought up to make way for the expressways, people were displaced and often moved farther out from the city.

For the most part, the Catholic churches in the city proper still flourished during the 1950s and 1960s but more and more people were moving to the suburbs and new churches were being built there to accommodate the population shift. In 1967 there were serious race riots in the city and that seems to have been a real turning point. Many Catholics fled to the suburbs because they no longer felt safe in their Detroit neighborhoods. They sold their homes in the city to African Americans who usually weren’t Catholic. That movement became known as “white flight”. The Archdiocese of Detroit shrunk even more in 1971 when the Dioceses of Kalamazoo and Gaylord were created.

A handful of Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit were closed or merged during the 1960s and 70s but by the end of the 1980s it became clear that more needed to be done to deal with the population shift. In 1989, thirty-one parishes were closed by Cardinal Szoka. Among those 31 parishes were St Albertus, the first Polish parish, St Casimir, and Assumption BVM which members of my family belonged to. Another 40+ parishes were closed or merged since the year 2000. And sadly, even more will have to be closed or merged this year.

As of 2009, the most recent year I can find statistics for, there were 271 viable parishes in the Archdiocese, 60 of them were located within Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, 195 were suburban parishes, and 18 were considered to be in rural areas. The Archdiocese of Detroit now consists of six counties, Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St Clair, and Wayne. Many, many of my extended family members still live within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

On this day, the 8th of March, I celebrate the 179th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Detroit and the 130th birthday of my Granduncle, Stanislaw Lipa.

Cry Fowl – Remembering Lenten Fridays

My limited experience with Lent began as a young newlywed. I was determined to be true to my husband’s Catholic faith, especially during Lent, a season celebrated with absolutely no fanfare by my Baptist ancestors. Our first year of marriage we lived in a little duplex apartment in Moscow, Idaho while my husband was in graduate school. I didn’t know any Catholics in town but when Lent rolled around I dutifully prepared to observe meatless Friday meals.

The first week I served tuna casserole. Good so far.

The next week I prepared roast chicken. My husband didn’t say much, just looked at me over the drumstick with a confused expression.

On successive weeks I alternated chicken and proposed tuna casserole. I say “proposed” because every time I said, “Oh honey, I thought I’d make Tuna Casserole tonight,” he would respond with something like, “You don’t  have to do that. It’s Friday. Why don’t we go out and have bean burritos?” Who could resist an invitation like that?

This continued throughout Lent that first year and for the next few years as well. Chicken and “proposed” tuna casserole were our standby Friday night meals. As it turned out, we both learned something from those Lenten sacrifices.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the real reason we ate out so much during Lent was because my husband hated tuna casserole. It reminded him of the one can version cooked by his mom.

After overhearing me share a chicken recipe with a friend, my husband finally figured out my affection for fowl. I thought meatless Fridays meant no RED meat, and chicken, therefore, was an acceptable Lenten alternate. Like fish, only with feathers.

Funny postscript to this story: my son’s favorite meal is chicken schnitzel, chicken breasts pounded flat, lightly breaded and cooked in butter. He calls it “Flat Chicken.” I once asked him why he liked it so much. His reply, “Because it tastes like fish.” Good Catholic boy.

P.P.S. – My fellow Catholic Gene Editors asked me to post this story and to add my tuna casserole recipe. I didn’t think this would be a problem until I realized that that the recipe probably joined the leftovers in the garbage. Instead, I offer a similar version adapted from a recipe in one of my mother-in-law’s Slovenian cookbooks.Enjoy!

Noodle-Tuna Casserole

1 package egg noodles
1 or 2 cans tuna, drained
1 can Cream of Mushroom Soup
handful diced celery
pinch celery salt
1 cup grated cheese
crushed potato chips

Cook the noodles and drain. Butter a casserole dish. In a large bowl, mix noodles, tuna, soup, celery, celery salt and grated cheese. Place mixture in casserole dish and top with crushed potato chips. Bake uncovered at 350 until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Adapted from a recipe in Pots and Pans, Hermine Dicke, ed. (Joliet, Illinois: Slovenian Women’s Union of America, 1982).

Young Ladies’ Sodality

Back in her youth, my mother belonged to a Catholic organization known as the Young Ladies’ Sodality. Over the years when she would reminisce about the days of her her youth, she would always mention the Young Ladies’ Sodality. It was an important part of her life for many years and she had many pleasant memories of her involvement with the group. She took great pride in being an officer of the group as well (treasurer).

I heard her stories many times over the years but I never thought to ask specifics of what the group was about. I know it was affiliated with the parish her family belonged to, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, in Detroit, Michigan, but I don’t know much else. So here I am reflecting back on her life and wondering why I didn’t ask her for more information about the Young Ladies’ Sodality (YLS). Since Mom is no longer with us on this earth, I’m left to do the research on my own. Here is what I’ve come to learn about the YLS…

The Young Ladies’ Sodality was a Catholic church society for young ladies that had four components: 1) Religion, 2) Purity & virtue, 3) Charity, 4) Social. The emphasis on each of these four parts seems to have differed somewhat from parish to parish and from age to age. There is plenty of evidence of these societies being in existence in Catholic parishes in the U.S. back in the 1800s. They may well have existed before that.

First and foremost, the YLS was a religious group. As these groups were formed in parishes they would establish a spiritual relationship with the Virgin Mary as their patron. If the local YLS was affiliated with the Mother Soldality in Rome members could receive indulgences and privileges granted by the Holy See. Members were usually required to receive Holy Communion once a month with the group and attend Mass together on Holy Days. They were also encouraged to pray the rosary often. The YLS provided guidelines for Catholic living and taught morals in keeping with the church.

Purity and Virtue
In the 1800s and early 1900s there seems to have been an emphasis on purity and virtue and the societies promoted that in a number of ways.

For instance, there were “rules” of comportment. These were usually not written down and spelled out specifically but rather were known by the elder women who were the sponsors and guides for the young ladies who were members. YLS members were expected to conduct themselves in ways befitting a group that was under the patronage of the Virgin Mary. They would have been expected to dress demurely, maintain a pleasant attitude to those around them (especially those less fortunate), respect their elders, and refrain from lewd language and behavior. Those who broke the rules risked being censured or expelled from the group.

In many parishes the members of the YLS were granted special privileges. As a result of this it was something of a prestigious group and young women deeply desired to become members. Examples of these privileges included: marching with the group (usually dressed in white with blue ribbons) and carrying the society banner in parish ceremonies and processions, at her wedding a member might be allowed white satin kneeler covers, special candles or flowers, and be allowed to present a bouquet of flowers at the altar of the Virgin Mary, and if she chose a religious life instead of marriage she would receive special prayers and Masses from her fellow members.

Stained glass window sponsored by the Young Ladies' Sodality, Sts Peter & Paul Church, Detroit, MI

Acts of charity seem to have been a common denominator of the Young Ladies’ Sodalities and something they spent a good deal of time doing. They organized fund raisers most often to benefit their own parish. Often they would “sponsor” a stained glass window in the church, buy altar linens, ecclesiastical vestments, candlesticks, tabernacle curtains, nativity displays for Christmas, altar flowers, etc. They also worked to help those less fortunate. During WWI, at least one Detroit parish YLS sold and collected bonds to help victims in Poland. In older parish jubilee books it is common to find a list of items donated to the church by the YLS. These donations seem to be what the group was most appreciated for by the clergy.

Young Ladies’ Sodalities provided a good many social opportunities for young Catholic women. I have not been able to determine any specific age range for members but it appears that young women commonly joined at about age 14 (typically 8th grade) and could remain members until they married or joined a religious order. My mother was the treasurer of her parish’s YLS the year after she graduated from high school so I think it’s safe to assume that membership did not cease with high school graduation.

YLS groups commonly hosted dances, theatrical performances, lectures, and group outings, all within the framework of the Catholic church. This is where young girls learned socially and religiously accepted behavior at social functions… how to interact with the opposite sex in appropriate ways. Often parishes that had Young Ladies’ Sodalities also had Young Men’s Clubs, which were the young men’s counterpart to the YLS. The two groups would help each other out at events with such things as taking tickets at the door or in the coat check room. And it goes without saying that they interacted frequently at parish functions.

Membership in the YLS also provided a network of friendship and support. When my mother needed a third letter of recommendation (from someone with a title) to get a job she turned to a fellow YLS officer with her plight. That lady friend just happened to be dating a state Congressman at the time and she was more than happy to make a request on behalf of her “friend from church”. My mother got the letter and got the job at the Federal Reserve Bank!

At the time of the Silver Jubilee of Assumption parish’s Young Ladies’ Sodality, they had 150 members. Fifty-five of those members are pictured below (my mother is circled). This photo appeared in the YLS Silver Jubilee booklet.

Young Ladies' Sodality, Assumption BVM Parish, Detroit, 1937

Here is a picture of the ladies that were officers in 1937 and who worked diligently to put on a celebratory dinner and evening of music to mark the Silver Jubilee.

Officers of the Young Ladies' Sodality, Assumption BVM Parish, Detroit, 1937

Today, Young Ladies’ Sodalities are virtually unheard of. There are a number of reasons for this but I think it’s safe to say that the main reason is that they simply lost their usefulness and popularity. Catholic church attendance is down and so is memberships in all church sponsored societies. Young girls no longer value purity and virtue the way they once did so joining a group that proclaims that publicly is no longer desirable. There are social opportunities around every corner, and online, for young girls and no “rules” to have to learn for how to conduct oneself. And charity works for the needs of the church… well, it goes without saying that young girls today are not much concerned with that. More’s the pity because the church still has needs… maybe more now than ever. They could use the energy and enthusiasm of youth to help with fundraising and prayer.

I suspect that Young Ladies’ Sodalities fell victim to the rise of women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. A friend of mine was a member of her parish’s Young Ladies’ Sodality in the mid 1960s. I belonged to a parish just a short distance from her but I don’t remember there being a YLS at our parish in the late 1960s or early 1970s when I would have been of an age to join. Our parish had a “Teen Club” which had some similar objectives, fundraising and chaperoned social activities, but it was a coed organization and lacked the emphasis on purity or religion that the YLS once had.

Were you a member of a Young Ladies’ Sodality or was someone in your family? What were your experiences with the organization?

Catholicism in New Mexico


An Historical and Personal Perspective

Most people when asked to name a “Catholic” state in the US, think first of Maryland. Maryland has a unique Catholic history among the original 13 colonies. But arguably, New Mexico is the most culturally Catholic state, at least historically.

New Mexico celebrates its 100th anniversary of statehood this year. The 47th state joined the Union on January 6, 1912.

New Mexico’s European history, of course, traces back to Spain. In 1521, following the defeat of the Aztecs, Spain, established the “vice royalty of New Spain,” which covered much of western North America, south of Canada. All of present-day New Mexico was part of new Spain. In the 1520s and 1530s, explorers Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Alvarez de Coronado for gold in New Mexico. A Franciscan, Marcos de Niza, described the Spanish quest in 1539. Franciscans would play significant roles in the 16th century explorations of New Mexico. These expeditions experienced much hardship and failed to find any gold. For the next 50 years after Coronado, there was little activity in New Mexico.

Near the end of the 16th century, the Spanish eventually established a permanent colony in New Mexico. San Juan de los Caballeros was built near the confluence of Chama and Rio Grande rivers. Franciscan missionaries were a large part of this community. San Juan was intended to be the capital of the province of Nuevo México; however, constant conflicts with the indigenous population led the Spanish to move the provincial capital to a location near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This new capital, established in 1609, was called Santa Fe. More than 400 years later, it remains the capital of New Mexico. It is the oldest continuously occupied capital in the United States.

Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico

In the early 1700s, Spanish settlers moved into the Rio Grande Valley and established Albuquerque. One of the first buildings in Albuquerque was the Church of San Felipe de Neri, on which construction was begun in 1706. The original church was completed in about 1719. This church collapsed in the rainy season of 1792. A new church, which still stands in Old Town Albuquerque today, was built in 1793.

San Felipe de Neri Church, Albuquerque, New MexicoSan Felipe de Neri Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico

European Catholics who came to New Mexico included not only Spaniards, but Irish and Italian immigrants as well. In 1853, Jean Baptiste Lamy, a native of France, became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1875, Lamy was consecrated the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), first Bishop of Santa Fe. Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, is based on his life.

Lamy was a legendary churchman who did much to improve the administration of the Church in the American West. Part of his great influence was due to the sheer size of the Santa Fe see. Since 1875, parts of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have been spun off into the Vicariates of Arizona and Colorado, and the Dioceses of Dallas, El Paso, Las Cruces, and Gallup.

Although the culture and history of New Mexico are inextricably tied to the Catholic Church, modern demographic trends have caught up with the Land of Enchantment. Only 26% of the population identifies as Catholic according to the United States Religious Landscape Survey (2007), conducted by the Pew Foundation Forum on Religion and Public Life.  That’s only slightly more than the U.S. nationwide figure of 24% Catholic. These figures represent a significant change from the 1920s, for example. The 1920 federal census found 360,350 inhabitants in New Mexico, while the federal Census of Religious Bodies in 1926 counted 215,553 Catholics. The figures work out to roughly 6 out of 10 New Mexicans as Catholics in the 1920s.

What happened? Much has to do with changes in Latino demographics over the years. Whereas the Latino population of New Mexico once was predictably overwhelming Catholic, as in Latino populations elsewhere there has been tremendous growth in Protestant Evangelicals among Latinos in New Mexico. The 2007 Pew survey found the total percentage of Protestant Evangelicals in New Mexico to be about 25%, nearly equal to the percentage of Catholics. Approximately 20% of Hispanics in New Mexico are said to be Protestant Evangelicals.

My Catholic family moved to New Mexico in 1961, several months before the 50th anniversary of statehood. We attended Mass at the two chapels located within the boundaries of the semi-secret Sandia Base, then the nation’s premier atomic weapons installation, located on Albuquerque’s southeast side. Our pastors were chaplains from all of the military services. We attended public schools in Albuquerque, although a lot of our friends went to Catholic schools, especially Holy Ghost School in the southeast quadrant.

Because we didn’t go to Catholic school, we had to attend catechism classes every week. These were taught by nuns of the order of Sisters of Charity, augmented by lay teachers from the community.

In 1961, as I recall, the catechism classes were on Saturday mornings in the meeting rooms of the multi-faith chapel officially known as “Chapel No. 2.” this was a relatively recently constructed edifice across the street from the hospital; like the hospital, it was gleaming white. Apart from officialdom, everyone called it “the New Chapel.” So was it distinguished from “Chapel No. 1,” which was also known as “the Old Chapel.”

[The Old Chapel was across the street from the parade grounds, a large green open space ringed by huge poplar trees and guarded on the side which faced the chapel by empty replica shells of Fat Man and Little Boy, both natives of New Mexico. The Old Chapel at this time was an exclusively Catholic venue. It was a wooden building constructed to Army specifications for World War II chapels. I imagine before the New Chapel was built, it too, served a multi-faith purpose. In the early 1990s, now part of Kirtland Air Force Base, the Old Chapel was converted into a child care center. More recently, the building was torn down.]

Several years later, catechism classes were moved to Sunday mornings at 7:30 before the nine o’clock Mass in the New Chapel.

There was a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) chapter on the base. CYO was much fun. We had hayrides and dances, went ice-skating, and to the movies. We got to know other Catholic young people through CYO.

My brothers and I became altar boys during our time in New Mexico. We made great friends like Mike Stark, Frank LoCasio, and others, and had memorable experiences (no, the time I got sick on the altar during the 5:00 a.m. sunrise Mass one Easter doesn’t count!).

TVLand: A Source of Catholic Genealogy?!

 [Note: a version of this post originally appeared at Geneablogie in 2006.]

An almost sinful obsession of mine (other than genealogy) a few years ago was watching Gunsmoke [formerly on TVLand, most weekends; also early mornings during the week.] Some weekends, it seemed as if the time passed and little got done except hours of Gunsmoke.  Let me tell you about one of those days.

At the first strains of the compelling theme music of the day’s first episode, I could feel myself being drawn in. By the time George “Smokey the Bear” Walsh had solemnly and ritualistically  intoned, “Gunsmoke . . . starring James Arness as Matt Dillon,” I was captured. To mitigate the situation, I tried to think of some genealogical angles to Matt Dillion, Festus, Doc, and Kitty that I could blog about. I was still pondering that when the fifth episode of the day began. An obviously very ill woman was being tended by three black nuns. The woman’s two children were nearby. The nuns agreed to see that the children made it to the farm their father was supposed to be preparing for the family near Dodge City [Episode #14, Season 15; first aired 12/29/1969]. Having already seen four episodes that morning,  I was actually about to turn the television off and get down to some real business when

one of the nuns mentioned that they were members of the “Oblate Sisters of Providence.”

I sat back down to watch the rest of the show.

[The children’s father (Jack Elam, as despicable as ever in his Gunsmoke recurring role as Pack Landers!) turns out to be a drunk layabout and petty criminal who offers to help the nuns build a school so as to get his hands on the funds donated for that purpose. It’s a sort of bizarro version of Lilies of the Field]1, 2.

What re-captured my attention was the mention of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which is an actual order of Roman Catholic nuns headquartered in Baltimore. Founded in 1829, it was the first religious order for African-American women. The first Superior General, Mother Mary Lange, started the order for the benefit of Haitian immigrants. The order has concentrated on child development and education.

On the 1920 federal census for Baltimore, there is a two page section for the St Francis Convent and Orphanage, operated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Listed in that section is 16 year old Emma Micheau, born in llinois. She’s the last and youngest “assistant inmate” listed before several boarders ranging from 38 to 94 years old, and then the orphans. “Assistant Inmate” appears to have been the description given to all the nuns and novitiates except the “Superior General” of the Order, who in 1920 was the Reverend Mother “M. Frances.”

Emma Micheau was the daughter of Marshall and Sophronia Micheau of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Marshall Emmanuel Micheau was the son of George Micheau, who had been born in Missouri in about 1852 and George’s wife, Mary Emma Roy, born in Prairie du Rocher in 1855. George was one of five sons of George [1813-1907] and Margret [1834-?] Micheau.

As a religious, Emma was known as Sister Philomena. After her initial stay in Baltimore, she returned to Missouri and later became the Superior at St Frances Girls School in Normandy, Missouri.

In taking Holy Orders, Emma Micheau was following the example set by her aunt, Adelaide (“Addie”) Micheau, who was the daughter of George and Mary Emma Micheau. Addie, born in 1885, became Sister Celestine, OSP, and was resident at the Order’s mission school in St Louis and later, at the Normandy, Missouri, orphanage.

Sister Celestine was my wife’s first cousin once removed and Sister Philomena was my wife’s great-aunt.

Mother Mary Philomena (nee Emma Mary Micheau)

Research Tip: The Oblate Sisters of Providence maintains an Archives and Special Collections Library at the Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent in Baltimore, Maryland. The collection is accessible by appointment only between the hours of 9am and 4pm Monday through Friday. Photocopying and photograph scanning services are available. Some of these records contain the names of orphans and students who resided at the various OSP facilities. Many other religious orders have similar archives.

A tip to search for Catholic religious persons is to use the words “father,” “mother,” “brother, or “sister” as either a first or last name. For example, if you search the 1850 census for Maryland for “sister” as a first name, you come up with about 185 members of the Sisters of Charity in Frederick and Baltimore. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses also have records of their personnel as well as worshippers. For more information on Catholic genealogical records, see the guide at


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