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TV documentary about the story of Catholic Philadelphia: Urban Trinity

Tuesday 24 November 2015, by SIGNIS

Philadelphia, Brussels, November 24th, 2015 (catholicphilly.com/SIGNIS/Lou Baldwin). Urban Trinity is the story of the people, the city, and the Church. It is a 75-minute film that tells the history of successive waves of immigrants whose common bond was their Catholicism and who came to the city seeking religious freedom, survival and a better life.

Their quest was not an easy one however. Produced by Philadelphian Sam Katz, executive producer of Emmy-award winning History Making Productions and in partnership with a local TV Channel, it relied on the talents of some of the most distinguished scholars in the region in a team headed by Katie Oxx, a professor of religious studies and historian at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, Catholics were striving to preserve the distinct cultural traditions the people had brought with them while at the same time create a unified Church in a mission land. Afro-Caribbean (both slaves and free persons) and French colonizers had just arrived from San Domingue, current-day Haiti, and doubled the number of Catholics in Philly to almost ten thousand.

But internal struggles paled in comparison to conflicts with those who thought Catholicism foreign – even a threat – to the democratic American experiment. In the 1830s and 40s, discrimination and violence became overt, and in the first large-scale urban violence in American history, Catholic churches and neighbourhoods were burned down, and dozens of Catholics were killed. Within decades though, aided by the massive influx of Irish Famine refugees, Catholics became the largest religious community in the city and cradle-to-grave institutions – schools, colleges, hospitals, credit unions – protected and served the flock.

Following the German Catholics’ pattern, Italians, Poles, African-Americans and others built national churches. By the end of the 19th century, Philadelphia was not just a city of neighborhoods, but a city of parishes, with an institutional and cultural network—a “cocoon” as some scholars have called it—a parallel Catholic city within the growing urban metropolis.

Under native son and Philadelphia’s first cardinal Archbishop Dennis Dougherty – “God’s bricklayer” – nearly five hundred parishes stood, with two thousand priests and seven thousand nuns to serve over a million Philadelphia Catholics as the twentieth century dawned.

The film also covers Dougherty’s very successful 1934 campaign to clean up the film industry by issuing a ban on Catholics attending movies, which the faithful dutifully observed, and it did work.

The film industry cleaned up its act at least for that generation remarked journalist Lou Baldwin For Baldwin it was perhaps a bit of overkill to illustrate this segment with a shot of the Earle Theater being torn down. The Earle, a theater located at 11th and Market streets in Philadelphia which also had live shows, survived Dougherty and closed in 1953. It was a victim of television, not ecclesiastical fiat.

A confident Catholicism flourished as the once-feared Catholics assumed prominent roles in every part of the city’s economic, political, civic and religious life. Real estate ads listed houses by parish, and even non-Catholics often defined themselves by parochial territory. In the post-war years though, those same parishes began to see their numbers dwindle as many Catholics left row-house life behind them and outreach to African-American newcomers was often tepid and there was racism in the parishes…

A number of the Catholics who stayed joined the civil rights movement and worked for equality and justice for all Philadelphians. At century’s end, the closing and merger of many schools and churches, the sexual abuse of children, and the hierarchy’s’ attempt to prevent its disclosure, have been perceived by some as not only criminal, but a betrayal of the highest order.

Today, in the early decades of Philadelphia’s fifth century, Catholics – both immigrants and native born – continue coming to the city, bringing their cultural traditions and forms of devotionalism to revitalize parish life. Many Catholics sense the changing landscape of the urban Church has provided creative new models to maintain the faith.

Contact with the film producers and the film can be seen here.

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