altoona railroad workers

“You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves…You shall love your neighbors as yourself.”

A generation or two ago, many Catholics were aliens in America, newly arrived immigrants from such countries as Germany, Italy, Poland, and Ireland.  They came to America to escape wars, famine, and intolerance.  They came in search of the dream:  a better life for themselves and their children.  Most often they found squalid living conditions, low wages, and discrimination.

Altoona, Pennsylvania, once well known as a railroad town and famous for the Horseshoe Curve, was one of the cities to which these Catholic immigrants came.  The Irish came first to lay the tracks.  As they became more secure in their new land, they asked for higher wages and better working conditions.  But Altoona was a one-company town, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the only union was a “pussy foot” company union which in reality represented management, not labor.  The railroad, rather than negotiating with the Irish, instead began to recruit a new generation of Catholic immigrants from Germany to replace them.  The story repeated itself among the German Catholics and so once again new workers were imported, this time from Italy.  The Italians did somewhat better for themselves, many rising into management positions.  However, they could only reach a certain level before being denied advancement.  To make it to the top you had to be a Freemason and so as Catholics they had to sacrifice success for their faith.  One Catholic, a brother to a priest, unfortunately found the prospect of promotion within the railroad too tempting and so gave up his faith to become a Mason and vice president.

The Church remained, for most immigrants, a vital source of comfort and spiritual solace.  However, while doing much for them spiritually, it lacked the political strength to help them socially — it could not challenge the power of the railroad.  In fact, it benefited financially from the Company as a dollar from each man’s paycheck was deducted and sent directly to the church.  If a worker objected to this practice he would receive a visit from the cathedral pastor who encouraged his compliance.  One such pastor went on to become the Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese.

The story of Catholics in Altoona could be retold in cities all across America.  After years of struggle, however, Catholics have grown in economic security and with it political power.  Today, rather than a despised minority, we are the richest denomination in the country.  There has been a Catholic in the White House and as a group we are now a force to be reckoned with in the political arena.  Once on the periphery of American identity and status, we now stand square as proud Americans.  But new generations of Catholic immigrants continue to come across our borders, from Mexico, Haiti, Asia.  Will we remember our days as aliens?  Will we remember our days of struggle?  Will we use our hard earned wealth and political clout to empower our younger brothers and sisters so that they too can fulfill their dreams?  Or will we allow our wealth to isolate us from their misery and use our political power to pass laws to restrict their entry?

(Note: I wrote Peace Connections in the early to mid 90s. I’m simply dusting them off now for use on social media and email which were not then available or in wide use. It burdens me that this reflection is still relevant. — An additional note: I used Altoona, PA as my illustration as I lived there in the mid 1980s and  thus became somewhat acquainted with its history.)

Thirtieth Sunday
Ex.22: 20-26; I Thes. 1: 5-10; Mt.22: 34-40

Peace Connections:  Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz.  “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.

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2 thoughts on “Altoona, Pa. and the Catholic Immigrant Struggle

  1. Great article. I will share this with many others. It is amazing to me that so many people forget the history of immigration in our country and say such harsh things about today’s immigrants. I pray that we have a conversion, an understanding of the struggle of the present day immigrants and compassion for their situation. We need to fix the system.

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