Charles McElwee joins Seth Barron to discuss the decline of the Catholic Church in the Rust Belt and the impact of immigration on a working-class community in Pennsylvania.

The Catholic Church faces a crisis in an area that remains disproportionately Catholic. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed how clergy covered up the abuse of children by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years. Congregations continue to shrink, deepening the region’s fragmentation and leaving a hole in its community life.

McElwee has just joined City Journal as assistant editor. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Conservative, National Review Online, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming on the show today, our associate editor Seth Barron, will talk with the newest member of the City Journal team, Charles McElwee. Charles joins us from Pennsylvania. He's our new assistant editor and he's written a number of articles for the magazine already. Last spring we published his first essay for City Journal "Chain Migration Comes to Hazleton," about the impact of chain migration on his working class hometown in Pennsylvania. Then this past winter he wrote "The Battle for Russ Belt Catholicism," which was about the collapse of the Catholic Church in the region. Charles has also written for The Atlantic, National Review, The Weekly Standard, The American Conservative and other publications. You can find him on Twitter @CFMcElwee. We're happy to have him on the team. Very happy, in fact, and we hope our listeners enjoy a new voice on the podcast. That's it for me. Here's the conversation between Seth Barron and Charles McElwee, beginning after this.

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today Seth Baron, associate editor for City Journal. Charles McElwee is an assistant editor at City Journal. He just started a few weeks ago. He's a native of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on economic development, demography and culture in the Keystone State. A recent piece in the magazine is called The Battle for Rust Belt Catholicism. Thanks for joining us, Charles.

Charles McElwee: Thank you for having me, Seth.

Seth Barron: So you make the point that the industrial Midwest has a long Catholic history, which I didn't really know very much about. But can you talk about how that came about and maybe the importance of the church to civic life?

Charles McElwee: Yes, so the Catholic Church really shaped the civic life of industrial cities in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania through the 20th century. And really in these neighborhoods and cities like Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Detroit's, the Church was the center of life. And that carried on through Vatican II and that's reforms in the early 1960s, and really through its industrial decline that was occurring in so many of these communities. And if counted today, Catholics would be considered the, ex-Catholics, would be considered the second largest denomination in the United States. But at one point their ancestors wore the majority among Christian denominations in this region and they really left a strong legacy that lingers despite its decline.

Seth Barron: Are these Irish Americans or, where were, where did they come from?

Charles McElwee: So the really Irish and German Catholics cut the ribbon on American Catholicism in the mid to late 19th century. And it was really industry-based towns that drew these immigrants to neighborhoods in cities where they formed Irish or German or eastern or southern European Catholic Churches later on in the late 1800s, early 1900s. But yes, so, Catholics, Catholic immigrants, when they arrived in these industrial cities, where they worked as miners or in factories. They established parishes that revolved around their... not only their religion but their ethnicity. The Church was the processing center for the immigrants. And while an industry may have assimilated the immigrant into American life, it was the Church that while preserving their culture also served as a source of assimilation. Whether it was through its school or fraternal organizations.

Seth Barron: I see. In your piece you talk about some of the challenges facing Catholic Churches in Pennsylvania, in the old industrial Midwest. So can you describe what's happening?

Charles McElwee: Yes. So last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro released a large report, recounting the abuse that had go on, had gone on in the Catholic Church, a Pennsylvania in six of the eight diocese in the state. And the details were horrific and disillusioned countless Catholics who, some who consider themselves to ex-Catholics, others who remains devout. There was a unanimous disgust over the details and really...

Seth Barron: These are the sex abuse...

Charles McElwee: Sex abuse scandals, correct. And it was a cataclysmic moment for the Catholic Church at the international level. Similar to what happened in 2002 with the Spotlight Investigative series that was part of the Boston Globe and later portrayed in Spotlight, the Oscar-winning movie. But the church is a strong base in Pennsylvania. The Catholics account for the majority among denominations in the state and there are many Catholic-based communities throughout Pennsylvania and the rust belt and the piece was focusing on how rust belt Catholics are responding to the scandal. We're seeing dwindling congregations, churches that are closing, dioceses that are just facing insurmountable debt, all driven by the sex abuse crisis. And I mean Pittsburgh alone, the Pittsburgh diocese has 600,000 Catholics. On a typical weekend, they may draw maybe 120,000 Catholics to mass. So the stats speak for themselves. But in response to this, a number of grassroots-based initiatives are taking place in cities like Buffalo and Detroit where they formed "Mass Mobs," which are akin to the cash mobs that support small businesses. "Mass Mobs" are social media driven events where they promote that a mass will be held in an historic parish that may be closed or is closing or facing dwindling numbers in its congregation. And they typically draw large turnouts. So Saint John of Kanty in Buffalo, for example, has drawn up to 800 people to its Sunday mass. And it serves an important purpose when it raises money for these historic churches that are really priceless and it also reacquaints Catholics with their ancestral roots. And really it's a reinvigorating experience and it has proven successful. So despite all the challenges in the Church, what people forget is, in some of the these neighborhoods in struggling rust belt cities, the Church serves as an important economic development source. The Church may have a soup, kitchen, daycare, services, etc., that provide the service to the impoverished neighborhood. And the Mass Mob keeps the church open through the money that it raises.

Seth Barron: But I mean, I understand that the sex abuse scandals have driven some people away from the church, but surely the problems with attendance must go deeper than that. I mean, you can go around Washington Heights and see old synagogues, say, that we're very vital at one point. And now they've been repurposed and there Pentecostal churches or things like that. But that's largely a function of, well people maybe, maybe this was a very Jewish neighborhood and then people moved away. So isn't some of this like, you know, maybe Scranton or Buffalo, people have just moved away and it doesn't have the same base.

Charles McElwee: Yes, in some cases, absolutely. And you're right. I mean, Lutheran churches are closing. I know recently most of the United Methodist churches in the city of Harrisburg closed. All historic structures, but all with twin congregations. But in some cases, you, you are seeing the mass closure consolidation of Catholic churches in regions where there is a strong, strongly devout Catholic base. So for example, the Panther Valley in Carbon County, Pennsylvania in the heart of the anthracite coal region. The diocese of Allentown closed 11 Catholic churches in the towns that line that valley, towns like Summit Hill, Lansford. And the valley now has only one church. But it's still, despite population loss, there is a very devout Catholic population there that practices. And they are down to one church and the elderly population is not attending because anybody who knows northeastern Pennsylvania knows it has terrible weather and the church has proven to be inaccessible. The one that was kept open, Saint Joseph's is considered an inaccessible to reach for the elderly and it only intensifies the sense of dissolution that these people already have. Now the diocese is considering the demolition of one of the historic churches, Saint Katherine Drexel, and really recently the local paper recounted what one woman said. She said, "this is our Notre Dame." And when you hear those statements, you just realize in these economically depressed regions, the church is often the only thing they have. And that's where the diocese of Allentown, like so many could be more sensitive to how they handle these closures. While many are inevitable, they could have been gradually carried out rather than happened all that once.

Seth Barron: Well this is kind of a segue to an earlier piece you wrote, but in New York City, for example, there are Catholic churches that are still Catholic churches. But they've become, you know, dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe or to various Latin American saints as the population has changed, through immigration from Latin America. So is there the chance that some of these dioceses could be saved by immigration from, you know, Latinos basically, who tend to go to church a lot. And I know that you've written about immigration into Hazleton, which has been a mixed bag, but I don't know if you want to talk about your Hazleton piece and maybe how the Catholic Church would tie into that.

Charles McElwee: Sure. So, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, part of the Scranton–Wilkes-Barre–Hazleton corridor, experienced profound demographic change over a short period of time. So in 2000, it had less than a 1% Latino population, and today is nearly 60%, and it's principally driven by Latino migration from the New York metropolitan area. So second to third generation Dominican-Americans who lived in Washington Heights or in Paterson, New Jersey, and move to Hazleton in the 2000s for a better quality of life. Better schools, cheaper housing, employment opportunities. I'd even to give perspective, the police chief of Paterson, Jerry Speziale, is also the police chief of Hazleton. So that gives you an idea of really the ties that Hazleton has to the New York metro area today. But when it comes to Latino migration, and its ties into the church, it depends on, really the, the Latino group. I mean, Dominican Americans, for example, are often Pentecostal. So they may open a Pentecostal church as you referenced, and in an old Protestant denomination or closed Catholic church. In Hazleton, many Dominicans attend Saint Gabriel's church, which was an Irish parish, founded in the early 1850s by Bishop John Neumann, who's a canonized saint in the Church. And he established the Church for immigrants from County Donegal, Ireland who arrived in Hazleton to work in the anthracite coal mines. It was an Irish parish through the 20th century. Digger Phelps, the Notre Dame basketball coach, later on in the 20th century, he started his career at Saint Gabriel's as a high school basketball coach. And he puts shamrocks on the student's uniform, saying "someday I'll coach at Notre Dame." And he was right. But today it's a largely Dominican parish. And so, yes, in some cases, churches are given new life when immigrants come in. But it really depends on the demographics of any town. So in Hazleton's case, largely Dominican population, Saint Gabriel's, it's the largest parish in the city, while other Catholic churches are closed. But typically among many Latino groups, they're protestant denominations or Pentecostal that opened in these churches.

Seth Barron: That's an interesting wrinkle. So maybe some of the Catholic churches have benefited from all of this migration into Hazleton. What are some of the challenges, let us say?

Charles McElwee: So Hazleton has been shaped by its melting pot history. It was always a city of immigrants. And Hazleton was not just a mining town. It was a commercial center for the silk industry. Really in many ways, it was a miniature Paterson, New Jersey, that once had the world's largest silk mill that also drew immigrants. So with the rapid migration in the 2000s, it was just really, the city was ill-prepared to absorb such rapid change. So yes, Hazleton is defined by its immigrant pass at one point over 30 languages were spoken on Hazleton city streets and we're only talking about six square miles to give perspective. But in the school district, for example, their ESL program, had a miniscule budget in 1999, 2000s. So they were ill-prepared to hire the ESL teachers to keep pace with the number of new students coming in from the New York metropolitan area or from the Dominican Republic. And today that's a challenge, having enough ESL teachers to keep pace with the number of students coming in. The city, in turn, was struggling with the services and needs to provide with such a profound demographic change. Keeping up with the demands of municipal resources. And Jerry Speziale has proven invaluable because of his understanding of Hazleton's demographics based on his experience in Patterson. But really Hazleton is a lesson that in just so many cities are ill-prepared for demographic change, especially those that are economically depressed. It's not to suggest that immigration is negative for a community. It's just that certain communities are not equipped to provide the services that may come with immigration.

Seth Barron: Hazleton got into some trouble, legally some time ago when they tried to pass some legislation that would either... Well wouldn't restrict immigration, but it would basically restrict... well, why don't you explain what the law was?

Charles McElwee: Sure. In the summer of 2006, Lou Barletta who was Mayor of Hazleton passed an ordinance that made it illegal for employers who hire illegal immigrants and for landlords to rent to them. And the ordinance was challenged by the ACLU. And subsequently went through the federal court process all the way to the Supreme Court. Hazleton lost. There was a cost to it, a $1.2 million price tag to be paid to the ACLU for its expenses. So it proved costly to the city of Hazleton, but really, Barletta this stance on the immigration issue and especially what he saw in Hazleton prefigured what we would later on discuss during the Trump era, especially 2015-2016 with the presidential race. Hazleton and Luzerne County, where Hazleton is, was a microcosm of so many of the socioeconomic trends driving Trump's base.  And that's why Luzerne County proved invaluable to Trump on election night 2016 because if fields 60% of Trump's winning margin in Pennsylvania that evening. And this is a historically Democratic county, one where people continue to vote for Democrats at the state and local level, but when it came to Trump, they went Republican. And that's why Hazleton with that immigration battle, it really shows you the relevance of that issue with his base. And Barletta, of course, went on to run for US Senate against Bob Casey this past year but did lose.

Seth Barron: Well, as Luzerne goes, so goes the nation, I guess. Thanks so much, Charles was a fascinating conversation. We'd love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter at @CityJournal #10blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Baron. Charles, thanks for joining us.

Charles McElwee: Thank you, Seth.

Photo by Jeff Swensen / Getty

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