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His Eminence of Los Angeles

The American Catholic Church of today is a product of many dramatic transformations, especially those that took place in the 1960s. Below is an excerpt from The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever where Mark S. Massa recounts some of the practices Archbishop James Francis McIntyre instituted in Los Angeles.

James Francis McIntyre entered St. Joseph’s (Dunwoodie) Seminary in Yonkers, New York, in 1916. Dunwoodie was then considered a showplace of the American seminary system of priestly formation. In interviews with fifty priests who had passed through its doors between 1915 and 1929, Philip Murnion found that almost all felt they had completed “a superior regimen of intellectual formation.” But superiority in seminary formation, as in so much else, lies in the eye of the beholder.  Michael Gannon, studying the Yonkers seminary in those very years, came to a somewhat different conclusion than the alumni. Gannon offered a bleaker picture of the intellectual world encountered by the young McIntyre: “The course work required little or no reading outside the textbooks and some notes; no papers to do; a library open to students only two hours on Sunday and Wednesday mornings; and an institutionalized four hours and forty minutes of study.”

But whatever intellectual shortchanging occurred at St. Joseph’s Seminary did not slow McIntyre’s rise into the upper reaches of the American hierarchy.  Ordained as a priest in 1921 at the age of thirty-five, he was quickly appointed assistant to the chancellor of the archdiocese of New York, and was named chancellor himself in 1934. His preeminence in that position—running the vast network of parishes, schools, hospitals, and orphanages on a day-to-day basis—brought him national visibility. McIntyre managed to refinance dozens of debt-ridden parishes under his care during the Great Depression, making him indispensable to his ecclesiastical mentor, Francis Cardinal Spellman.  But Chancellor McIntyre’s relations with the priests of New York, who actually ran the operation on the parish level, reflected the theological poverty that was his inheritance from the Dunwoodie Seminary. Things in the Church didn’t (or couldn’t) change, so that the duty of his underlings was to learn the correct answer, and simply apply it. Usually this meant McIntyre’s answers.  Thus many of the clergy who reported to McIntyre in those years found him to be authoritarian, even harsh, in dealing with subordinates. He was respected for his business acuity and for his economic abilities, but this prominent alumnus of St. Joseph’s Seminary was also “a pragmatic man not noted for the range of his intellectual interests or sympathies.”


McIntyre carried his dismissive attitude toward liberals, and indeed toward anyone who sought to change what he took to the changeless truths of Catholicism he learned in seminary, to the other side of the continent, when he was named archbishop of Los Angeles in March 1949. The death of his predecessor, the much-respected John Cantwell, opened up what had been the See of a desert city known more for its battles over water rights that its Catholic identity. But that had changed quickly after the Great Depression.  A million new parishioners had swelled the ranks of the faithful during the 1930’s and 1940’s, so that what had been a largely sleepy diocese now needed a bricks-and-mortar leader, someone who could oversee a massive expansion of parishes, schools, and Catholic social services. McIntyre’s boss, Cardinal Spellman, informed Romae that he had just the man for the job in the person of his chancellor, and (not surprisingly, given Spellman’s powerful influence at the Vatican) McIntyre got the job. He oversaw an impressive institutional expansion: the number of parishes grew from 221 to 318 during his years there, and the number of Catholic schools doubled from 159 to 351.


By November 1965 the order’s General Council decided that they needed to send one of their own to the Eternal City to report back, first-hand, on what the Universal Church was legislating regarding the reform of women’s religious orders. Mother Caspary was duly selected to make the trip and provide personal commentary on the council’s documents when those decrees were finally promulgated. But Caspary only just arrived in Rome when she received a disturbing phone call from the vicar-general, Sister Elizabeth Ann Flynn who was overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the community in her absence. Flynn informed the nonplussed Caspary that Cardinal McIntyre had decided, without previous warning, that the order was to undergo an “official visitation” from priests of the archdiocese. Theirs, moreover, was to be the only community of women in the archdiocese to be visited.

Caspary immediately intuited that something other than concern for the spiritual well-being of her sisters had motivated such a surprise visitation, especially given its irregularity in Church law. Church tradition called for the regular visitation of religious orders at five-year intervals, usually undertaken by a single priest appointed by the local bishop. McIntyre himself had undertaken a special canonical visitation of the order just six months before Caspary left for Rome. But the vicar-general informed an astonished Caspary that the cardinal had appointed not one, but a team of priests from the diocese to conduct the visitation, and this less than a year after the previous one. Flynn had protested to the chancery that such a visitation would be most inconvenient, given Caspary’s absence in Rome. But McIntyre would not be put off: the visitation would take place, and the cardinal fully expected Mother Caspary to be present for it. Caspary later reported that many in the archdiocesan chancery interpreted the visitation as a “form of persecution of the community.” What she found when she arrived back in Los Angeles confirmed her fears:

Once home, with a sense of helplessness I heard from the sisters of the humiliating interrogations by the visiting priests. The fear the sisters felt soon gave way to honest indignation as each one faced questions designed, it would appear, to undermine their faith in the renewal process… “Do you think it would take too much time to fix your hair if you were to change your habit?” “Do you have any books by non-Catholics in your library?” “Do you want to look like a floozie on Hollywood Boulevard?” “Do you have hootenanny masses?” “Do you read and approve of the diocesan newspaper?”

Mark S. Massa, S.J. is Karl Rahner Professor of Theology and Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, at Fordham University.

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