Remember That You Were Once Foreigners

Within the cultural deposit of the Church, there is no greater treasure than the human face. Our churches are full of them, Jesus’s face, Mary’s face, Joseph’s face, our saints, our angels, all our art and icons. Christmas is of course when our churches crowd with living human faces, and we build the profoundly vulnerable enchantment of nativity scenes on our altars and in our homes. Of course, that enchantment is broken each year when the angel appears to Joseph and directs him to flee with his family to Egypt in order to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

One can only wonder about Joseph’s state of his mind:  was he so fearful of the murder of his child (and of the angel!) that he just automatically jumped to the task, or did he pause to consider what Egypt would be like, how he and his family would be treated there?  Being a Jew, Joseph would have known Egypt through his Torah.  Did he recall Pharaoh’s slave camps? Perhaps he recalled the Book of Leviticus: “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Did he consider with sad irony that here he was, going back to Egypt, to be a foreigner once again? Was the Holy Family mistreated in Egypt? Or did they find love and acceptance? According to Coptic tradition, they moved frequently to avoid Herod’s spies. We also know that this refugee story had a rare, happy ending—the angel reappeared and told Joseph Herod was dead, and the family returned safely to Galilee. More questions arise for us there: In Galilee, did Leviticus’ injunction to remember Egypt now take on a real-life meaning for Joseph?  What did he convey to his Son about their time in Egypt? Without question, Christ loved foreigners as much as Jews, and whether it was the Parable of the Good Samaritan or his miracles on behalf of Romans and Canaanites, his ministry reflected all the Old Testament injunctions to love the foreigner:

  • He makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the strangers who live with our people and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those strangers, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.  (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
  • Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done, and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, aliens who live among you, or anyone else in need.  (Zechariah 7:9)
  • I am the Lord, and I consider all people the same, whether they are Israelites or aliens living among you. (Numbers 15:16)

Here in Connecticut two thousand years later, there are many of our immigrant parishioners and neighbors who can read these passages with similar “real-life experience.”  For the rest of us, we are like Joseph’s neighbors—the ones who did not have to flee—perhaps entrenched in Galilee for many generations, yet still enjoined to remember Egypt. Indeed, acts of remembrance are fundamental Catholic obligations reiterated at every mass and on every feast day and in many, many prayers: to remember what occurred before and let it shape our actions today.

Most of us do not have Egypt in our bloodline, but as American Catholics, we certainly possess a similar shared memory of our ancestors’ time in a hostile, oppressive land, which was their experience as foreigners in these United States. Indeed, at one time, the State of Connecticut presented a uniquely hostile environment, a story detailed by Monsignor Stephen DiGiovanni some years ago in his excellent The Catholic Church in Fairfield County (1987). As he relates, the early Irish, German and French Catholic immigrants were met with invective about invasions and floodwaters much like that unfortunately heard from politicians today.

Thus, in 1837, the Reverend Lyman Beecher worried: “if upon examination, it should appear that three-fourths of the foreign emigrants whose accumulating tide is rolling in upon us are, through the medium of their religion and priesthood, as entirely accessible to the control of the potentates of Europe as if they were an army of soldiers, enlisted and officered, and spreading over the land; then, indeed, should we have just an occasion to apprehend danger to our liberties….” The Reverend Horace Bushnell (for whom the state capitol’s main public park is named) was more direct. He declared: “Catholic emigrants are pouring into the country, in a manner altogether unexampled.  Every one of them and their descendants are meant to be our enemies, and most of them probably will be.” Most of the Catholic emigrants were Irish, arriving in great numbers commencing in 1847. The 1850s proved to be particularly tough years for Catholics in Connecticut, with outrages occurring like in 1851 in Danbury a mass being disrupted by protestors and in 1853 in Norwalk St Mary’s Church being set on fire.

Racist political movements soon congealed, and the Know-Nothing (or American) Party won the gubernatorial election, putting in power William Minor of Stamford, who declared Catholics unfit for American citizenship, passed laws to frustrate Catholic enfranchisement and disbanded those state militias with too many Catholics in them.  Monsignor Digiovanni reports: “the Norwalk and Stamford papers were particularly bitter in their reports on the Church in America—carrying anti-Catholic reports in nearly every issue during Governor Minor’s years in office”.

While the Civil War years gave a reprieve and allowed Irish and German Catholic soldiers to prove their valor in nearly every theatre of war, the prejudice resurfaced and grew bolder as a new wave of Catholic immigrants arrived. In 1887, one nationwide anti-Catholic organization, the American Protective Association, opened chapters in Norwalk and Bridgeport. At the turn of the century another bigoted organization, the Guardians of Liberty formed, and rallied against Catholics at a meeting at the Danbury Methodist Episcopal Church.

As respects the many new Italian, Polish, Hungarian and other arrivals, Monsignor says; “[a]lthough the Diocese of Hartford and her clergy bore a distinctly Celtic stamp throughout this period of intense immigration, the open-minded policy and generous provisions in favor of the arriving Catholic immigrants provided an atmosphere both attractive and conducive to the settlement of large numbers of  Catholic “new immigrants” within Connecticut.” Indeed, in Monsignor’s other classic work of history, Bishop Corrigan and The Italian Immigrants, he details how the Irish-American bishops divided into two camps, The Progressives and the Conservatives, and disagreed on how to approach the assimilation of these New Americans into Society and the Church. The principal disagreement was whether the Church would provide immigrants with English-only parishes (for the sake of “progress”) or honor the parishioners’ native languages and allow them to integrate at their own speed (and so move “conservatively”). The Conservatives won, based on the well-observed basis that while parents speak the native language and due to the pressure of hard work have little opportunity to do otherwise, their children grow up speaking English, and one way or another all Catholics arrive at a common language.

So while the racists and bigots continued to rage, re-emerging as the second iteration of the Klu Klux Klan, which held a massive rally in Stamford in 1924, the diocese welcomed the foreigners and built  “national churches” in its major cities, where parishioners could meet, speak and worship in their own native tongue. According to Monsignor, these churches and their peoples were:

1886—St Joseph in Bridgeport—the Germans

1891— St John Nepomucene in Bridgeport—the Slovaks

1891—Our lady of Pompei in Bridgeport—the Italians

1896—St Anthony in Bridgeport—the French

1896—St Stephen in Bridgeport—the Hungarians

1897—St Michael in Bridgeport—the Polish

1900—Holy Trinity Church in Bridgeport—the Ukrainians

1903—Holy Name in Stamford—the Polish

1905—St John the Baptist in Bridgeport—the Ukrainians

1907—Sts Cyril and Methodius in Bridgeport—the Slovaks

1907—St George in Bridgeport—the Lithuanians

1907—St Ladislaus in Norwalk—the Hungarians

1910—St Ann in Danbury—the Melkites

1913—Holy Cross in Bridgeport—the Slovenes

1922—St Mary in Bridgeport—the Ruthenians

1923—Sacred Heart in Stamford—the Italians

1925—Sacred Heart in Danbury—the Polish

1927—St Raphael in Bridgeport—the Italians

1930—St Benedict in Stamford—the Slovaks

1932—St Anthony in Danbury—the Maronites

1932—St Emery—the Hungarians.

In my own perambulations around the diocese, I have visited several of these beautiful churches and remarked how they still hold mass in their native languages, such as at Sacred Heart and Holy Name in Stamford. As for those communities that have faltered with age, the Church continues, and old immigrant parishes have been replenished by the new wave of Catholic Latino, Haitian and other immigrants, who fill those churches with their own human faces and remember their own recent journeys out of Egypt. As for the rest of us—the Galileeans who did not make the journey— our history is not so very far away, not in time, nor in place, nor in current attitudes, and we are commanded to remember it.   

Pete Maloney is a Director of Catholic Charities of Fairfield County.  Monsignor DiGiovanni’s books are available on