by Jan Lewis
It started with the establishment of the Diocese of Baltimore in 1789, which served 30,000 Catholics living in the 13 states of our newly created country. European immigration, fed by Irish and German immigrants escaping famine and poverty in their home countries, swelled the Catholic population to over 3 million by 1860.
Catholic immigrants fleeing poverty in Europe tended to remain poor in the United States, and poverty began to be equated in American society with Catholicism. At that time, it was primarily Protestant faith-based organizations that were responding to the swelling poverty of the country’s urban areas. Catholics were applying for assistance and were involved in the criminal justice system at a disproportionate level.
In a pastoral letter issued in October 1866, the bishops of the United States acknowledged the growing problem: “It is a melancholy fact, and a very humiliating avowal for us to make, that a very large portion of the vicious and idle youth of our principal cities are the children of Catholic parents.”
This was a catalyst for the church, and Catholic religious and lay practitioners began to organize and take on the challenges of poverty as a problem of “our own.” Early in the 20th century, efforts were made to consolidate and professionalize Catholic charitable activities. Catholic universities began offering programs in social work, Catholic and non-Catholic organizations began to look for ways to collaborate, and a few bishops around the country began to assume direct leadership of the Catholic charitable institutions in their dioceses.
In 1910, on the campus of Catholic University of America, the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC) was founded to promote the creation of diocesan Catholic chari- ties bureaus, “to bring about a sense of solidarity” among those in charitable ministries and “to be the attorney for the poor.”
On Sept. 25, Catholic Charities USA will celebrate its 100th anniversary of service to the poor and vulnerable with a gathering in Washington D.C. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago will preside at the opening liturgy, which will be held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It will be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the good work of the past 100 years, but it will also be an opportunity to issue a call to action to all Catholics. We were once the immigrant, the poor, the despised and the vulnerable. Today there is a new wave of immigrants, many of them Catholic, fleeing poverty and hunger in their homelands, and we have the same obligation to them that we had to our ancestors.
We are the immigrant church, and the poor belong to us.