By Peter F. Stevens
(Third in a Series about the Catholic Church and Boston politics.)
In many ways, no one could replace Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston. His death in November 1970 marked the end of an era in more ways than one for the Boston Archdiocese. Under Cushing and his predecessor, Cardinal William O’Connell, the Catholic Church had become a potent political, cultural, and religious force. The church ministered to a wide range of ethnicities, but the Church’s rise in the late 19th century and all of the 20th was inextricably intertwined with the contemporaneous hard-won rise of the Boston Irish.
Reflecting just how connected the archdiocese was to its generations of Irish immigrants and the Irish American families was the fact that all of Boston’s bishops and cardinals for over a century traced bloodlines to the “ould sod.” With Cushing’s health failing rapidly in the last 1960, the region’s Catholics expected that their new clerical leader would hail from the same “green” heritage, but they were stunned by the Vatican’s choice to succeed the dying cardinal: Bishop Humberto Sousa Medeiros, a Massachuetts native then presdiening over he diocese of Brownsville, Texas.
To a wide swath of Boston’s Irish community and its political potentates, Medeiros was seen as the ultimate outsider. Boston College Professor Thomas H. O’Connor has written, “Although his formal reception was courteous, there was no great love in the city’s hierarchy for him.” He was a man whom J. Anthony Lukas [author of the busing era book “Common Ground”] described as an ‘alien graft’ on the form of Boston’s Irish Catholicism.”
Medeiros not only faced the “not-one-of-us” issue, but also stepped squarely into one of Boston’s most explosive and divisive events –school desegregation and busing. It was a controversy that would have sorely tested even Cushing’s bone-and-sinew Boston Irish understanding of his parishioners, Massachusetts politicians of all backgrounds, and the region’s ethnic, cultural, and racial entities. For Medeiros, who arrived with little or no understanding of the archdiocese’s inner and outer workings, success in the post proved imposing at best, impossible at worst.
Medeiros did grasp what it was to be the child of immigrants to America, but some of his parishioners in and around Boston still viewed his immigrant story as “foreign.” Born in 1915 in the Portuguese Azores, he was the oldest of four children and came to America with his family in 1931. They settled in Fall River, where he graduated first in his class at Durfee High and went on to graduate from the Catholic University of America. He was ordained in June 1946, and in 1953 was appointed chancellor of the Fall River Diocese and made a monsignor in 1958.
Though a gentle, humble, and studious cleric, he was a rising star in the church because of his kind and effective parish skills. He was appointed to the Brownsville post in June 1966 and walked straight into the struggle between impoverished Mexican-American farm workers and Southwest farm owners. At first, he tried to remain above the fray, but with so many of his 234,000 parishioners among the poor laborers seeking a fair wage and a chance to support their families, the Portuguese-American bishop took up their cause. Wrote the historian Michael Lescault: “Medeiros...himself was quite free of racial prejudice; any form of racial discrimination was unthinkable,” and he insisted that his priests in Brownsville avoid and decry the “old worn-out and unjust cliches” flung at Mexican migrant workers.” Another church historian, John Tracy Ellis, lauds Medeiros’s courage in taking on entrenched ethnic and social injustice in Texas and writes that he proved his mettle as a man of “deep faith, seriousness of purpose, unflagging industry, and a concern for others that was conspicuous.”
Tracy adds, “In a word, the Brownsville appointment seemed a striking example of the right man in the right place.”
When Medeiros was sent to Boston, many Irish-American parishioners questioned whether he was the right man for the job. The doubts flowered in 1974 when the city erupted in the fight over the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s public schools, pitting parishioners and neighborhoods against each other, against the courts, and against the fairness of the edict.
But even before busing, Medeiros, made a cardinal in 1973, faced problems in tis own house. O’Connor, in The Boston Irish, notes that Medeiros “was saddled with the enormous financial burdens of Cushing’s building programs [and] hampered by the passive resistance of resentful Irish pastors.”
Medeiros’s natural pragmatism led him to strain for conciliation among parishioners understandably irate at the idea of their kids being bused to other parts of the city when no such measure was directed at busing supporters in affluent suburbs; among some community leaders whose racial animus superseded the legitimate issues of fairness; and among parents on all sides simply worried about their kids. In short, there was no pleasing everyone and the cardinal alienated many in the archdiocese by siding with the desegregation proponents.
The crisis took its toll on the prelate. In September 1983, physically and emotionally by his position, passed away. The wrestling match that is Boston’s curious blend of politics, religion, and community had overwhelmed his best efforts. The consensus is that he had never been a good fit despite his good intentions. To this day, the desegregation chapter remains a thinly covered scar on the Boston landscape, and many will always believe that their cardinal never fully grasped his Boston Irish parishioners’ lives and concerns, as well as the historically complex confluence of church and politics in Massachusetts
The man who succeeded the ill-fated Medeiros would not only be branded in some corners as the most political of priests, but he would also be front and center in a crisis that eclipsed busing and damaged the very foundations of the church that bishops and cardinals from Fenwick to Cushing had built for the Irish and the immigrants who followed.
NEXT: The arrival of Bernard Law.