It was October 1933. The Great Depression was deepening—and would continue to deepen—despite a new administration’s frenetic activity. Formerly prosperous parts of the country were beleaguered; formerly poor parts of the country, such as Harlem, were worse off than ever. It was in Harlem, on a fair autumn afternoon, that a strange and solemn procession took place.
The procession began at St. Charles Borromeo Church on 141st Street near Seventh Avenue and traversed neighboring streets before ending up back at the parish. People out for a Sunday promenade stopped to observe the unexpected sight. At the head were altar boys in cassocks and surplices, one boy carrying a processional cross. At the rear was Fr. William McCann, resplendent in a golden cape and carrying a large missal. He later said the missal was “just to be carrying something” and was purely for effect—as was the whole procession.
It was McCann’s silent but public announcement that St. Charles Borromeo was going to become a leaven in the community, one where Catholics were few and where the church, despite its towering superstructure, had played at best an incidental role. Perhaps this was not surprising, since nearly all of Harlem’s residents were black, and few black Americans were Catholic. Most, if they were religious at all, found their spirituality in the Baptist, Pentecostal, or Holiness churches. Cassocks, surplices, and processions were not part of their religious history.
William McCann and his brother, Fr. Walter McCann, wanted to change that. Newly assigned to the parish, they wanted to make Catholics out of their neighbors—and they did. When they arrived, there were 318 parishioners. Fourteen years later, there were 6,500. The growth began with that procession, which brought in its trail curious onlookers—some who already were parishioners, but many who simply wondered what was going on. Having attracted the neighborhood’s attention, the priests invited non-Catholics to inquiry classes. The classes succeeded beyond anyone’s imaginings.
The program for prospective Catholics comprised 28 sessions, the last three being examinations, a rehearsal for baptism, and the baptismal ceremony itself. The other sessions lasted 90 minutes apiece and were held twice a week. The program took three-and-a-half months and was repeated three times a year. Between 1933 and 1947, on average 440 converts were brought into the faith each year. (In 1946, there were 1,100 converts in the whole of the Archdiocese of New York. Five hundred of them were from St. Charles Borromeo Church alone.)
It was the new converts who were chiefly credited for bringing fresh people to the inquiry classes. The converts not only had learned their faith, but they had been inculcated with a desire to share it with others. Their zeal was shown not just by their missionary work but by their piety. During Lent more than 500 people attended daily Mass. Before going out to New Year’s Eve festivities, folks packed the church for a holy hour. (Imagine that being done today!) The parish, located in an area noted for both adult and juvenile delinquency, became “an oasis of morality and friendliness,” as one observer put it.
The Catholic faith blossomed in what many people considered soil too poor to be worth bothering with. The most depressed and perhaps least Catholic part of New York had outstripped the rest of the city. For a brief time Harlem showed Catholics what was possible. It was, unhappily, a story that other parts of the archdiocese soon forgot and that other parts of the country never even heard of. For us, a lifetime later, it can be a reminder of what can happen when determination and inventiveness cooperate with grace.