02 April 2017

Brief History of Catholic Immigrant Churches in Albany

The following information was culled from my SUNY Albany 2005 Masters Thesis, From Acceptance to Renunication: Das Ende von Albanys Deutschtum. It briefly describes the origins of the various Catholic immigrant churches in Albany.

The immigrant or national church was the foremost non-familial institution that German enclaves organized around.  The church sought to preserve religious customs from the old country.  Ethnicity, language, and religion were closely intertwined.  The German belief held that the loss of language would preclude the loss of faith.  Intense devotion to religion and nationality exhibited among Germans, in general, was especially evident among priests.  Zealous German priests linked orthodoxy with language.  They campaigned to preserve the German language and customs.  Their slogan was “language saves faith.”[1] Both German pastors and parishioners had an aversion to the English language.  Their dislike was based on the fear that false teachings would creep in with the new language.[2] At the same time, the German language represented the old culture and brought to life memories of the past.  This was evident in parish devotional life, and the parish school was one institution that transmitted the cultural heritage to the children of immigrants.[3] (For Albany’s parishes and synagogues that organized schools for their congregations see Table VI.)  After German unification, Germans that immigrated especially in the 1880s and 1890s brought with them a militant patriotism and thus reinforced the natural tendency to retain the language of the Vaterland.[4]


Table VI: Albany’s Parochial Schools to 1912[5]


Parish

Denomination
Church Established
Predominant Ethnicity
School Established
School                         Closed
St. Mary’s
Roman Catholic
1798
Irish
1829

Beth El
Jewish
1822
Jewish
1849
See Beth Emeth
St. John’s
Roman
Catholic
1839
Irish
1843
1975
St. Paul’s
Lutheran
1841
German
1841
1904
St. Joseph’s
Roman
Catholic
1843
Irish
1846
1978
Holy Cross
Roman Catholic
1849
German
1864 (Elem) 1900 (HS)
Open        1919
Anshe Emeth
Jewish
1850
Jewish
1852
See Beth Emeth
German Evangelical Protestant
Evangelical
1850
German
c. 1852
1901
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Roman Catholic
1852

Irish
1861
1992
St. Matthew’s
Lutheran
1854
German
1855
1905
St. John’s
Lutheran
1857
German
1864
N/A
St. Patrick’s
Roman Catholic
1858
Irish
1906
1980
Trinity
Evangelical
1860
German
N/A
N/A
Our Lady of Angels
Roman Catholic
1867
German
1867
1986
Church of the Assumption
Roman Catholic
1869
French
1880
1916
St. Ann’s
Roman Catholic
1870
Irish
1908
1976
Our Lady Help of Christians
Roman Catholic
1880
German
1875
1975
Sacred Heart of Jesus
Roman Catholic
1884
Irish
1855
1981
Beth Emeth
Jewish
1885
Jewish
1894
1905
St. Casmir
Roman Catholic
1903
Polish
1910
Open
St. Anthony’s
Roman Catholic
1912
Italian
1912
1974


Most Germans worshipped in the Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths.  However, there were other religious sects that had German parishes in Albany: the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Reformed Protestant.  Of these religions, the Roman Catholic faith had the most numerous immigrant church parishes in Albany.  In these churches, services were said in native languages: French, Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian.  Simultaneously, the Catholics also had seven English language parishes by 1900.  Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist parishes held services in either German or English, while Jewish synagogues worshipped in either the English, German, or Hebrew languages.  Today, empty ethnic churches litter the streetscape of Albany.  They are a reminder of the importance of the church as a focal point in the long disappeared ethnic enclaves of Albany.
Roman Catholicism
During pre-Revolutionary years, Roman Catholic priests lamented their inability to care for the Catholic German element in their flocks.  In 1741 the first German priests arrived in the English colonies.  Reverend Matthew Pekari noted that at the beginning of the American Revolution, the German Catholics outnumbered their coreligionists among the English in many localities.[6] At this time in Albany, Catholics were a minority to the Dutch Reformed and Lutheran faiths.  Later, Catholics made up an average of over thirty-five percent of the total German immigration to the United States during the years following the Civil War.  They totaled approximately 700,000 in number from 1865 to 1900 and became the largest Catholic immigrant group arriving in the States.[7] Catholics also became the most populous of all religious faiths in Albany.
In the nineteenth century the parish was the focal point of Catholic life in Western Europe, and the church transplanted this parochial structure to the United States.  Ideally, geographical boundaries defined the size of the parish, but in American cities it was not that simple.  Germans were unable to understand English preachers just as the Irish were incapable of fathoming the subtleties of French sermons.  For this reason ethnic diversity intensified with each successive wave of immigrants settling in American cities.  The concept of national parishes emerged, based more on language than on geography.[8] Albany’s first Roman Catholic Churches were English language parishes that served the English speaking Catholics of Albany, mainly the Irish: Saint Mary’s, established in 1798; Saint John’s, in 1839; and Saint Joseph’s, in 1843.  When other ethnicities, such as Germans, Poles, French, and Italians, moved into the city, ethnic or national churches came into existence.  Immigrants wanted separate churches where their traditional religious observances and customs might be carried out.  They desired to hear sermons in their mother tongue, go to confession as they had learned to confess from early childhood, and to take an active part in parish life through their beloved societies that served as social clubs and organizations of mutual support.  This unity and support helped preserve European Catholic traditions and identity.[9] However, it was not unusual for Albany’s Catholic immigrant churches to be located proximate to one another, sometimes within the same block.  The German Holy Cross church was located within one block from the French Church of the Assumption and two blocks from the Italian Saint Anthony’s Church.  Also, the German Our Lady of Angels was just one block east of the Irish Saint Patrick’s Church and approximately three blocks from the Polish Saint Casmir’s Church.  Our Lady of Angels Church was also across the street from Saint John’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church and two blocks from the Irish Episcopal Grace Church on Clinton Avenue.  Obviously, many parishes overlapped.  This demonstrates the coexistence of various ethnic groups within the same neighborhood.
The growth of Catholic schools as an ethnic institution was a response to the rapid development of a Protestant-based public school system, often guided by people who felt themselves alienated from America’s dominant culture.  To assure their cultural survival, the ethnic parishes built up a community school system to preserve their national language and heritage, which were in danger of being lost in a new environment.[10] Saint Mary’s Church on Pine and Lodge Streets established Albany’s first Catholic parochial school in 1829.  The early school occupied the basement of the church.  Saint John’s Church on South Ferry and Dallius Streets followed next in 1843.  The third Catholic parochial school was founded by Saint Joseph’s Church in 1846.  The German Holy Cross Church created the fourth Catholic school in 1848.  Characteristically, German Catholics advocated parish schools as soon as the parish was established.  German Catholic parishioners were convinced that the preservation of their faith required the maintenance of the German language and culture and that this was best accomplished through Catholic schools.[11] (See Table VII for a select list of the enrollment in Albany’s Catholic immigrant schools for the years 1910 through 1920.)  According to the data compiled for the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909, there were over two thousand Catholic congregations that used the German language either exclusively or in combination with English in their sermons and songs.[12]
Table VI: Enrollment in the Schools of Albany’s Immigrant Catholic Churches[13]

School   
Ethnicity
1910
1911
1912
1913               
1914
1915
1916
1917
1918
1919

1920
Assumption
French
58
80
84
94
50
45
52
NA
NA
NA
NA
Holy Cross
German
174
186
180
188
179
182
158
166
138
107
110
Our Lady of Angels
German
301
352
357
361
356
362
370
356
366
370
370
Our Lady Help of Christians
German
177
172
159
164
141
161
170
176
185
180
180
St. Anthony’s
Italian
85
92
90
91
124
132
137
194
200
133
112
St. Casmir’s
Polish
150
183
193
236
233
253
281
342
413
419
353
Source Page

759
569
586
573
682
647
572
570
469
433
529

Previous to 1869, the 130 French Canadian Catholics in Albany did not have a permanent place for religious services.  A group of 150 individuals formed the Saint Jean Baptiste Society, which became the nucleus of the Church of the Assumption.  The church was incorporated on October 12, 1869, and its cornerstone laid on December 12, 1869.  The church had a seating capacity of 700 persons.  Reverend Joseph Brouillet, pastor of Assumption, offered the Sisters of the Holy Names from Hochelaga, Canada a salary of $400 a year for teaching in the school.  Two Sisters arrived on September 1, 1880, and registered one hundred children for classes that were taught in the basement of the church.  Contrary to expectations, registration declined until, in 1915, there were approximately sixty children registered in five grades.  French immigration into Albany slowed, and on September 20, 1916, classes at the Assumption school were discontinued due to a lack in enrollment.[14]
The Polish Catholics of Albany founded Saint Casmir’s parish in 1893 and built a small but ornate church on Sheridan Avenue in the upper Sheridan Hollow section of the city.  Saint Casmir’s pastor, Reverend Bartholomew Molejkajtys, was anxious to provide the children of the parish with a Catholic education.  His yearning was fulfilled when a school was eventually built in 1909.  Lay teachers taught the pupils until September 1917, when they were replaced with the Sisters of the Resurrection.[15] Today, the school remains open and managed by the Albany Catholic Diocese as it serves minority families of the neighborhood.  Amid tears and anger Saint Casmir’s held its last service on Sunday, August 29, 2004.
The Italians of Albany formed their own enclave in the vicinity of lower Madison Avenue, below the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  By the early 1900s the Italians had become the city’s third largest Catholic ethnicity behind the Irish and Germans and also the last major Catholic faction to immigrate to America before immigration was drastically curtailed in 1920.  In 1908 Saint Anthony’s Church was erected on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Grand Street.   The church’s pastor, Reverend Francis Buono, realized that a school would soon be necessary to educate the parish children.  In 1909 a school was founded and employed seven lay teachers until the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist were invited to teach the children in 1917.  This religious community remained until 1920, when they decided to discontinue their services because of the lack of Sisters.  The Sisters of Saint Joseph immediately replaced them in September 1920, until they were replaced by the Sisters of the Presentation.  According to religious scholar Sister Mary Ancilla Leary, Italian parish schools rarely gave instruction in Italian.[16] The school and church closed when many of the Italian residents moved from the Madison Avenue neighborhood to westward sections of the city on account of the creation of the Empire State Plaza.
The last of the Catholic immigrant churches in Albany was founded by the Lithuanians.  Lithuanian immigration into Albany and its neighboring cities increased between the years, 1905-1916.  By 1916 approximately four hundred Lithuanian families resided in the Capital District.  They attended various Catholic churches, but they desired to worship in their native language.  Therefore, in 1916 they formed the Saint George’s Society and were granted permission from the Bishop to allow Father Constantine F. Szatkus, a priest from Pennsylvania, to care for their spiritual needs.  On March 17, 1917, Saint George’s Society was transformed into Saint George’s parish.  A church was soon built on Livingston Avenue.  The parish prospered until the early 1990s.  In 1993 only twenty members remained in the parish.  Most communicants had either died or moved away.  Fortunately, the church was saved from closure because Father Kofi Amissah, who was serving one mass on Sundays for the African-American community, persuaded Bishop Howard Hubbard to keep the church open as a Black Apostolate.  Permission was granted, and the church is again growing and thriving.[17] (This church has since closed)



[1] Dolan, The Immigrant Church, p. 70. Frederick C. Luebke, “The Immigrant Condition as a Factor Contributing to the Conservatism of the Lutheran Church” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 38(2): 19-28.
[2] Paul T. Dietz, “The Transition From German to English in the Missouri Synod From 1910-1947” (Bachelor of Divinity Thesis, Concordia Seminary, 1949), p. 78.
[3] Dolan, The Immigrant Church, p. 110.
[4] Alan Niehaus Graebner, “The Acculturation of an Immigrant Lutheran Church: The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1917-1929” (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1965), p. 12.
[5] Sister Mary Ancilla Leary, The History of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Albany (Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 1957), pp. xlvi-xlviii. Notes from the Roman Catholic Diocese Archives.
[6] Reverend Matthew Pekari, “The German Catholics in the United States,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 36 (December 1925): 318.
[7] Colman J. Barry, “The Catholic Church and German-Americans” (Ph.D. dissertation, St. John’s University, 1953), p. 7.
[8] Dolan, The Immigrant Church, pp. 4-5. Phillip Gleason, The Conservative Reformers: German American Catholics and the Social Order (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 8-10.
[9] Dolan, The Immigrant Church, p 70. Greenberg, Workers and Community, p. 120. For Albany’s early Catholic Church origins, see Byron, Irish America, pp. 35-37. The German Catholic Central Verein grew out of the mutual benefit societies that had been organized in many German Catholic parishes. Gleason, The Central Verein, 1900-1917, p. 8.
[10] Marvin Lazerson, “Understanding American Catholic Educational History,” History of Education Quarterly 17(3): 298. Dolan, The Immigrant Church, pp. 102, 111.
[11] Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty, p. 36. Leary, The History of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Albany, p. 135.
[12] Rippley, The German-Americans, p. 115. Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty, p. 35.
[13] Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Albany, Volume II, [reports] 1910-1920 (Albany: The Argus Company, Printers, 1910-1920), pages are listed in the chart.
 [14] Leary, The History of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Albany, pp. 55-56. Michael J. Louden, ed. Catholic Albany: An Illustrated History of the Catholic Churches and Catholic Religious, Benevolent and Educational Institutions of the City of Albany (Albany: Peter Donnelly, 1895), pp. 261-262. Phelps, comp., The Albany Hand-Book, p. 59.
[15] Leary, The History of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Albany, pp. 87-88, 134-135. Charles W. Blessing, ed., Albany Schools and Colleges, Yesterday and Today (Albany: Fort Orange Press, Incorporated, 1936), p. 44.
[16] Leary, The History of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Albany, pp. 91-93. Blessing, ed., Albany Schools and Colleges, Yesterday and Today, p. 44.
[17] American-Canadian Genealogical Society, St. George, Albany: NY: Marriages, Baptisms, Burials (Manchester: American-Canadian Genealogical Society, 1999), p. 1.